Sudan – Refugees

Rev. Matt Anker, Goulburn Murray Lutheran Parish, Australia

Australia and the countries of Africa is symbolic of the very different worlds they represent. A difference I could only begin to imagine before I embarked on this journey.

Cattle Camp

As I write this the sun is rising in Shepparton while almost everyone here has already wandered off to bed. The time difference between Australia and the countries of Africa is symbolic of the very different worlds they represent. A difference I could only begin to imagine before I embarked on this journey.

Almost two weeks ago I flew over the Eritrean coast and it struck me that the continent of Africa was stretching out before me and that I was going to spend the next three weeks there. Once landing in Nairobi my bleary eyes were again treated to a near unbelievable sight as I looked out the car window and saw giraffes off in the distance! This was the beginning of a journey that was going to bombard me with new experiences and insights, and challenge previous notions of developing countries.

I’m travelling with a colleague from Australian Lutheran World Service (www.alws.org.au) which is the humanitarian and resettlement agency of the Lutheran Church of Australia. Together we’re visiting projects in Sudan and Kenya that are supported by our church and meeting with partner agencies. Spending several days in Nairobi to meet with humanitarian workers was a remarkable experience. The knowledge, commitment and determinedness of these people is inspiring and serves to highlight the incredible needs that still exist in parts of Africa. But those insights were quickly overshadowed when we had the joy of meeting with family members of Africans settled in Shepparton.

The husband of one of our church members is patiently waiting to be reunited with his wife in Australia and she asked me to take a package of photos to him. The joy of seeing his wife and children was overwhelming and he quickly insisted that we come to their home and share a meal together. And so we ate and prayed and sang together and heard first hand how difficult life still is in places such as the Congo. A young woman visiting from eastern Congo described how most people from her town prefer even now to sleep in the forest to avoid the bandits who break in and loot and kill during the night. Despite this frightening reality, this young woman was returning to her homeland in a few days, refusing to give up hope and determined to have a future.

From Kenya we flew into Sudan and landed at Juba airport. Juba is the capital of South Sudan and is a town that has grown quickly since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the north and the south in 2005. In some ways it feels like a town straight out of the wild west, with chaotic roads springing up around make shift shelters and ‘lean to’ shops. And yet it is a place that is clearly the focus of foreign investment and construction and there’s a sense of confidence in its future. Western style buildings meet traditional African huts everywhere you look and the place is alive with activity.

Juba was a little more than a stopover as we boarded a small UN plane for a remote location known as Panyagor. Situated in Jonglei state, Panyagor is a largely forgotten place where many refugees returned to Sudan following the peace agreement. Lutheran World Service had been supporting the refugees in Kakuma Refugee camp in northern Kenya and so it made sense that they follow the refugees home and assist in developing the returning community. We landed on the dirt airstrip at Panyagor and the pilots pulled up quickly as a stubborn eagle refused to move from the centre of the runway.

If my senses had been bombarded by Africa before, they were overloaded as the plane came to a stop. Roads swarmed with people on foot, ladies carrying huge loads of firewood on their heads, and apart from one aid agency’s compound, all the buildings were traditional tukuls (grass and mud huts). Our compound was not that far from the airstrip but recent floods and bogged vehicles have damaged the roads and most the time you can’t do any more than 5 or 10 kph so it became a journey of over half an hour through the most amazing scenery. The compound is very basic – the generator was down so no electricity for most of our stay, there’s no running water except for the shower which is nice and cold! And it’s HOT, although they told me it was still cool compared to the 55 degrees they expect in January!

During the dry season it’s necessary for most in South Sudan to become semi-nomadic to ensure their stock are fed and watered. They’ve always done this by sending the men and boys out with the cattle for months on end as they took their cows closer and closer to the Nile. We were privileged to visit one of these cattle camps and were greeted with an impressive battle dance and song, and then treated to a wrestling exhibition. The men are made of tough stuff and yet they welcomed us with a warmth we could learn from. They urged me through the cattle to photograph their prized animals with impressive horns and then spoke of their desire for their children to receive an education to secure their future. These are men with vision for their families and a strong desire to see that vision fulfilled.

From the cattle camp we moved on to visit a school sponsored by Lutheran World Federation and heard again the difference education was making in the community. Driving into the school ground the children abandoned their classes and ran after the car, screaming with delight, ‘Khawarja! Khawaja!’ (white fellas!). Passionate men and women spoke to us of the successes and challenges they are faced with as 800 students meet in 4 class rooms with only 9 teachers! As we said our farewells the children gathered around me and one dared to reach out and touch my white, hairy arm. His bravery inspired others to do the same as they touched one of the few white fellas they’ve seen in this remote location.

One of the other projects we visited was a Community Peace Committee set up, along with 10 others, with the support and training of Lutheran World Federation to encourage peace and reconciliation within what has been a divided society. I sat in awe of these wise and committed people who volunteered to do such difficult work in trying conditions, and yet who could see the fruit of their work in only a couple of years. Their stories gave me a real sense of hope for Sudan and its people.

Panyagor, like much of South Sudan, is a harsh and unforgiving environment and yet is a place of great beauty, inspiring people, rich traditions and a long history. If you were born there, it’s the kind of place that you just can’t get out of your system – a fact that makes the story of our resettled refugees in Shepparton even more remarkable. Not only have so many of them come from a world totally foreign to Australia, but they have been forced to leave behind a world rich in culture and tradition and support. When I reflect on all they’ve had to leave behind, I find the success they have made of their new lives in Australia even more remarkable.

Tomorrow we fly to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, a place that was home to many now living in Shepparton. I’ve stopped anticipating what to expect and just look forward to meeting more of the remarkable people who refuse to give up in this troubled continent.

______________________________

We flew from Juba in South Sudan to a town which grew around a runway in Northern Kenya. Lockichoggio was the base from which aerial food drops originated during the height of the war in Sudan and it’s the closest airstrip to Kakuma Refugee Camp. The pilot told us that despite having to abort an earlier landing because of the sudden appearance of a motorbike on the airstrip, the most dangerous leg of journey was the next hour we would spend on the road. Northern Kenya is well known for its hijackings and kidnappings and so it’s policy that aid workers travel with armed escorts. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to having uniformed men with machine guns sitting next to you in the car.

Kakuma Refugee Camp sprung up in the early 1990’s as refugees made their way from South Sudan in search of asylum. Despite the repatriation of a significant number of refugees back to Sudan and the resettlement of many more to places such as Shepparton, Kakuma’s population is on the rise again. The week we arrived it hit the 80,000 mark once again with refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Kakuma is located in the Turkana region of Kenya and is a hot, dry, dusty place. The goats struggle to find anything worth eating and the humans often fare much worse. It’s a place that teems with white Landcruisers plastered with stickers telling you which humanitarian agencies its passengers work for and people wander from place to place, or hitch a ride with the push bike or motorbike taxis that charge a few shillings to get you where you need to go.

It was a profound experience to set foot in a refugee camp, especially one that was once home to many people I now consider dear friends. But my stay there was an emotional roller coaster as I was privileged to hear stories of hope and the amazing accomplishments of dispossessed people, and yet confronted with stories of the most desperate sadness and pleas for help.

Some of the first refugees to arrive at Kakuma in 1992 were the now famous ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. Separated from their families, 15,000 boys aged from about 9 years of age fled the war and escaped a certain future as child soldiers, and were settled in Kakuma. Despite many of the lost boys being resettled, 18 years after their arrival too many are still sitting in the dust of Kakuma waiting for the life that was robbed from them. Talking with five of the original lost boys we were struck by the depth of sadness that consumed their eyes and their longing to know why they seem to have been forgotten by the outside world. I walked away feeling it was little more than an accident of geography and parentage that left some suffering needlessly in places like this, while others of us enjoyed peace and a future without giving it a second thought. In the face of years of disappointment these young men still held on to the hope that one day, it would be their turn. I prayed with them that that day would be soon.

With such a large, semi-permanent population a great deal of development work is being done in order to build capacity among the refugees and equip them for whatever the future holds. One of the highlights was meeting with teenage leaders of the Child Rights Clubs which operate throughout the camp. These inspiring youth from eight different countries spoke about their united desire to see child exploitation brought to an end in the camp. They were very open about challenges they face such as insufficient food, sexual abuse, early marriage and child labour, and yet they worked together to raise awareness among their peers and their parents. Adults the world over could learn a lot from these young people who work alongside their ‘foreign’ friends and support each other in a relentless environment.

One of the real privileges on this journey has been to visit with family of church members in Shepparton. In Kakuma I met the nephew of a Shepparton lady and gave him photos of the family in Australia and talked about their new life. I can only imagine the mixture of emotions he must have felt as he celebrated his loved ones’ new life, while longing for that life himself.

A visit to the food distribution centre revealed how little food refugees survive on in this part of the world. They supplement their rations in any way possible, earning whatever they can from odd jobs or even a business set up in the dirt streets of the camp. You can visit a hotel, eat at a restaurant, photocopy your documents for a visa application or even have electricity and internet connected to your mud brick hut! But don’t jump to the wrong conclusion. These corrugated iron establishments and temporarily strung wires running from generators to huts are not accessible to the masses. Most just struggle to survive in the two weeks between food distributions.

The success of any refugee community depends largely on the welcome they receive from the host community. In Kakuma that community is known as the Turkana people. Nomadic pastoralists from centuries gone by, the Turkana are a colourful and resourceful people used to surviving. Although Lutheran World Service’s main task is to manage the camp, they are also involved in support and development work among the Turkana. I was delighted to visit with these ancient people and to hear the difference something as simple as a windmill bore has made to their lives.

A refugee camp is not what you expect it to be. In many ways Kakuma is a large African shanty town that has arisen out of the dust of the desert and has become home to so many people who can no longer count on the safety of their homeland. It’s a place where there can be joy and laughter and even hope. But it can also be a place of despair and sadness and hopelessness.  As an outsider looking in I can’t imagine choosing to live there – and yet that is what 80,000 people have chosen to do. Because despite it’s harshness, Kakuma is still a much better option than the homelands from which they have fled.

As the policemen piled into our four wheel drive with their machine guns to head to our next flight, the driver stopped in the middle of the police compound and asked if someone would pray for us as we headed out on the road again. As I began to pray the ‘tough cops’ with their heavy artillery were the first to bow their heads. They knew all too well that you need all the help you can get to survive in this part of the world.

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