January 9, 2018
On the Feast of the Epiphany, several of us from Yambio left to visit our Solidarity colleagues at the Agricultural Project located in Riimenze. It is a mere 30 kilometers from the Teacher Training College yet takes over an hour and 45 minutes to get there. The road has not been maintained in years and as such is in terrible shape. One does not speak of potholes in South Sudan but rather of craters and canyons. Some of the holes in the road are large enough to swallow a Toyota Landcruiser.
As we travelled along we noticed that there were fewer people travelling along the road and even fewer in the markets along the way. Insecurity and violence on this main road to the capital Juba has been rife since January.01.2017 and most people are still wary of travelling far from home. We pass one new village where several groups who had been scattered in the jungle decided to live closer in community for more safety and security. They were living in makeshift canvas huts with grass roofs. Most of these were very small dwellings.
Riimenze is where over 6,000 people who have left their jungle homes have come for safety. On New Year Day, 2017 rebels brutally attacked several villages looting, pillaging, raping and burning the homes to the ground. Many lost their lives. These rebels are not from this area and no one is sure what their purpose is. Certainly they want money and we are told that everyone carries little amounts of cash in case they are stopped. This way at least they have something to give to the thieves or they might get killed. This is especially true for women who are at increased risk to violence. Rape has been agreed by military leaders as a way of paying the soldiers since the government and rebel groups have no cash.
When the violence erupted the people ran to the Catholic Church in Riimenze for protection. At first when they arrived most did not sleep at all. They sat on the steps of the church and maintained an anxious vigil prepared to charge off into the jungle at the first sign of armed men in the area. The priest, Fr. Viktor has quite a bit of influence on the people and even the rebels themselves. He is well respected and has by the Grace of God been able to diffuse several potentially explosive situations over the year. He has told the people to stay close and when rebels or other armed groups come, he confronts them and somehow has so far been able to make them go away. However, the nearby school run by the Brothers of Christian Instruction has been robbed 3 times at gunpoint. They were forced to build a large wall with razor wire around the house.
Solidarity in Riimenze is primarily concerned with the Agricultural Training and Experimental Farm but once internally displaced people began arriving at the church, Solidarity staff led by project director, Sr. Rosa Le Thi Bong, RNDM, went to work to assist them in any way they could. They offered produce from the farm and were able to get several other organizations to provide food, water, shelter and other necessities. Today, the entire Riimenze area is strewn with thousands of little shelters made from poles, canvas and grass. Sr. Raquel walks miles each day visiting the people in their ramshackle huts helping where she can and providing blankets, plastic containers, and other necessities to cook and prepare food.
Bore holes have been drilled and water points created but the water situation is still desperate. Too many people and too little water. Malaria and typhoid are major health concerns and the Solidarity nurse, Sr. Mariline is busy morning to night attending to the needs. Sr. Josephine works in the local kindergarten and her enrolment doubled overnight when the displaced started to arrive. She now serves well over 200 children under the age of 7 years old with only 4 classrooms and 2 teachers to assist her.
As we walked around everyone greeted us and chatted for a few moments. There is very little privacy in the area as these huts are built almost on top of each other. All vegetation has been cut down to build the huts. What was once jungle is now open. Latrines are nothing but a hastily dug shallow hole with four poles and a canvas sheet draped around them. A small market is slowly developing but most people have no income. Some of the braver ones have recently begun to return to their homelands during the day to plant or harvest what they can. This can be dangerous because if the rebels show up they could be killed.
As we strolled the vast area of white and blue canvas shelters observing how the jungle has been cleared for this new settlement, Sr. Raquel assures us that the people are somehow better off now than the past year. There is a bit more security in the area. A small market is developing. Solidarity has begun to hire these unfortunates to work in the Farm so they can earn a bit of income. Some of the people have even planted mini-gardens on their little 10 square feet of land in front of the church.
After our College staff had a meal and community meeting with the Agricultural staff it was time to return. Along the road we stopped to assist a motorcycle which had something wrong with it. We lent some wrenches to the fellas and they quickly repaired their disabled vehicle and we both head off again after 10 minutes. On these isolated roads everyone looks out for everyone else.
It was a long day and I was tired and dusty upon returning. Bouncing around in the back of a Toyota jeep on a road like that takes a lot out of a person. But I learned the lesson to never waste water or food after that visit. God has helped me see how wasteful I have been so from now on I will thank My Lord for every drop and morsel I have.
I was touched by the very suffering souls of this isolated community. I wanted to reach out and heal them. I wanted to make everything better. But all I could do was smile, greet them, shake their hands and pray for them. One elderly woman said, “ We are grateful for your presence.” I thank God I can be here.