Exodus prompts Samaritan's Purse relief effort (December 21, 2011)

Written by Jeff Adams

Published by Calgary Herald on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Leyla Kafi Hamad and her four children are among tens of thousands of people from Sudan's Nuba Mountains - where Samaritan's Purse has been providing aid since 2000 - who have been driven from their homeland by their own government.

They are in a makeshift camp in what was once a small village of 300, but is now a sprawling mass of straw huts housing 20,000 people.

"It took two months for us to walk here from the mountains," Hamad told me during my mid-December visit.

"The children are so young - we had to walk slowly and rest many times."

The Sudanese armed forces has attacked the Nuba people from the ground with artillery fire and from the air with bombing raids. Thousands of Nubans have been killed. Homes and entire villages have been destroyed. Families like Hamad's escaped by scattering into the mountain forests. In the confusion and terror, family members were separated from each other - some forever.

Hamad is still searching for her husband 41/2 months after arriving in Yida.

"When the gunfire and fighting began, we ran and ran," she says mournfully.

"When we stopped, I didn't know where he was."

The death and destruction in the Nuba Mountains was a constant part of Sudan's 20-year civil war in which the mostly Arab north was pitted against the mostly black African south. That war - during which two million Sudanese died and more than 600,000 fled to other countries, including Canada - ended with a peace pact and the south's secession from Sudan last July to form the new nation of South Sudan.

Sadly, the secession didn't end the fighting. The government has continued to launch attacks in some areas of Sudan, including the Nuba Mountains and its population. More than 300,000 have been forced to abandon their homes, often fleeing across the border into South Sudan.

Many made it to Yida, 18 kilometres inside South Sudan. Going further south meant entering the Sudd, a massive mosquito-invested, malaria-breeding swamp only slightly smaller than Vancouver Island.

Samaritan's Purse learned about the camp at Yida in early August. We arrived to find 2,000 people, many so close to starvation they were boiling grass and plant roots in a desperate bid for survival.

We quickly began an emergency relief effort by flying food supplied by the UN's world food program and other aid into Yida using our DC-3 cargo plane, which has been a workhorse for us all over Africa for the past seven years. Before we could clear a landing strip for our plane, we dropped food from the air.

Since then, as the camp has grown tenfold in population, Samaritan's Purse has provided shelter materials, medical care, therapeutic feeding for the acutely malnourished, education help (there are now functioning schools here) and trauma counselling. We've also drilled five wells and established a centralized water storage and distribution system.

When I met Yida's village chief and asked him if he knew of Samaritan's Purse, William Deng quickly responded: "The name of this organization is held high here. Even a small child knows the name of Samaritan's Purse. We say the name in the way we would say our father's name - with great respect."

The Yida camp has come under attack recently from the same military troops intent on driving the Nuba people out of the mountains. The Sudanese armed forces dropped four bombs here Nov. 10. None of the bombs - including one that landed in a schoolyard but failed to detonate - killed anyone.

But the attack, and another since then in the border town of Jau, has the UN trying to convince the Yida camp's residents to move to another site much further away from the border.

Meanwhile, Samaritan's Purse and other aid organizations that have begun helping at Yida have been forced to evacuate some of our staff to ensure their safety - while the rate of malnutrition among newly arrived children, which was at 11 per cent, has risen recently to 15 per cent.

"The children suffer the most," said Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham after visiting Yida in early December. "Hundreds of children arrive alone. They don't even know if their parents are alive."

I leave Yida, thinking of Samaritan's Purse founder Bob Pierce's words: "Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God."

What's happening in Yida must be breaking the heart of God.

Jeff Adams is director of Samaritan's Purse Canada's communications department and a member of the non-profit Christian organization's senior management team.

 

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