Monthly Archives: August 2014

Humanitarian Spotlight: Pau Vidal, S.J

August 18, 2014
South Sudan: Innocence Suffers in Conflict
By Pau Vidal, S.J.

Maban, 13 August 2014 — Alvar and I, the two new Jesuit members of the Jesuit Refugee Service team here, arrived in Maban (Upper Nile state) almost a month ago. More than 127,000 refugees from Sudan came here in late 2011 — early 2012, and are living in four very large camps in a precarious situation.

These refugees find themselves caught between two wars, the one at home (Sudan) and the other one in the country that currently hosts them (South Sudan). Literally they have nowhere to lay their heads.

Amidst all the challenges, JRS managed to start a teacher training for about 150 teachers; the teachers came from the four refugee camps as well as the host community. According to recent data, more than 80% of the teachers in the camps have not finished primary school themselves, so there is still a long way to go to achieve quality education.

JRS has also launched a psychosocial programme to train peer counsellors, to support the extremely vulnerable population (so far, JRS has been doing regular home visits to 245 individuals) and to support youth in the camps with some sports activities.

One really thought that the lives of the refugees were tough enough and that things could hardly get any worse. But, in South Sudan, things seem to go from bad to worse, so last week it was the time for Maban.

In the afternoon of Sunday, 3 August, fighting started in Bunj town (the capital of Maban county) with gunshots and heavy shelling around the market area. Alvar and I were attending a funeral in a nearby village. Without delay, we walked, quickly, toward the nearest UN compound.

A wave of hundreds of terrified women and children running away from town overtook us. It was hard to believe that the people from the host community were running for their lives toward the refugee camps. A few months earlier there had been tensions between the refugees and the host community, but in this critical moment the Mabanese people were welcomed to safety by the refugees.

Running myself for my life amidst those women and children I felt a knot in my stomach and wondered who on earth gains anything from this senseless war that has already left enough victims? Up to now it is not too clear what exactly triggered the recent fighting in Bunj town. Some claim that a unit of government soldiers defected to join the opposition forces, but even that has not been confirmed. The sense of uncertainty is one of the most difficult things to cope with in times of conflict.

During the mayhem at least six humanitarian aid workers were targeted and killed due to their ethnicity. The Maban Defence Forces (an armed local militia) have been blamed for these heinous killings. These tragic events have brought strong condemnation from the international community.

After two days of uncertainty, humanitarian workers were advised to evacuate to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and to leave only behind a few staff. All JRS staff were asked to leave Maban. We were flown to safety to Malakal on a World Food Programme (WFP) flight and then loaded into cargo planes and brought to Juba. It is still fresh in my mind the large crowd of refugees congregated at the dirt airstrip near Bunj town looking at the spectacle of so many humanitarian workers leaving in haste. Their faces showed disbelief and fear of being left alone. That moment was a difficult one for us. We had just recently come to be with them, to journey with them, to accompany them, but we were leaving the refugees behind in their most difficult moment.

The evacuation of more than 240 humanitarian workers has catastrophic consequences for the refugees as well as the host community. Most activities came to a stand still, even the life-saving ones such as food distribution. For the refugees, who have no means of survival, the meagre food ration distributed by WFP is essential for their life. Mothers cannot manage hearing their children day after day cry of hunger.

The local government has assured agencies that events like this will not be repeated. That being said, unless the people responsible are brought to book, impunity will breed more violence as the recent report by Human Rights Watch has clearly demonstrated. In addition to this, if the South Sudanese leaders who have been at loggerheads for eight months do not finally find a compromise, the already critical situation in the country can turn into a real catastrophe. At local level the security situation in Maban seems to be improving bit by bit, thus JRS team hopes to be back on the ground very soon to restart the activities.

A good friend and fellow Jesuit working with JRS, Jaime Moreno, once told me that being with JRS often means touching the absolute failure of humanity. Following the inspiration of St Ignatius of Loyola we are invited not to avoid such experience, but rather to dwell in the failure of the world and to try to discover its deepest meaning. In the third week of the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola invites us to contemplate Jesus on the cross. That silent and sorrowful contemplation opens up the possibility of finding God even in a tragic event such as the brutal death of an innocent victim.

Today in Maban, a remote corner of South Sudan, the victims of too many conflicts are the crucified people of our times, witnessing to the mysterious presence of God in times of darkness. They call us to be with them, to speak out and to take action. In an uncaring world where more than 50 million people are displaced, the JRS mission of accompaniment of refugees is needed more than ever. This is precisely why Fr. Arrupe founded JRS in 1980.

Pau Vidal, S.J. is Project Director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Maban and a graduate of IDHA 43.

*This article was first published by JRS on August 13, 2014.

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Alumni Update: Joe Lowry (IDHA 12)

In his recent blog post, “Have the first ‘Climate Change Refugees’ just landed?“, Joe Lowry (IDHA 12), a Senior Media and Communications Officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), reflects on how countries are disappearing, are renamed and borders are redrawn because of the climate changes that are affecting every part of the globe.

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Alumni Update: Andy McElroy (IDHA 16)

Andy McElroy (IDHA 16) has recently published an article, “Early Warning Saves Lives in China Earthquake” discussing how the Chinese government’s allocation of resources for disaster relief, specifically an early alert system that warns residents about upcoming earthquakes, has helped save thousands of lives when an earthquake struck the Yunnan Province this Sunday, August 3rd. He has also recently published, “Quake tragedy drives advocate for safe schools” talking about how earthquake survivor Zara Tonoyan became an advocate for teaching school children how to survive disasters through the use of art and theater after she lost her sister to an earthquake at the age of 13 while they were both in school.

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Humanitarian News Briefs: The Ebola Virus

The Ebola Virus

The deadly Ebola virus that has been terrorizing Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia since the epidemic began in March has most recently been reported in Nigeria. The current outbreak has so far infected 1,600 people and killed more than 880 people in West Africa, making it the deadliest outbreak in the disease’s history – between the discovery of the Ebola virus in 1976 and the current outbreak, only 2,300 infections had been recorded. The virus, which attacks the immune system upon entering the host’s body, leaves patients with flu-like symptoms and uncontrollable bleeding. With no vaccine, and no cure, the primary treatment offered to patients is termed “supportive care” and consists of fluids, pain relief, and the management of clotting problems. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of only two NGOs currently operating in the region working to quell the epidemic, the main way that the virus has been spreading in the West African region is at funerals. MSF notes that when one person dies, people from all over will come and practice their bereavement rituals including touching and kissing the unembalmed body without washing their hands after. Now that one case of the virus has spread from the three original countries to Lagos, Nigeria, there is growing concern by Western governments that the epidemic could spread out of Africa. In late July two Americans working in Liberia contracted the infection, further prompting concern about the disease’s potential to spread to countries in Europe, and the United States.

Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the two Americans infected with the virus, arrived at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on August 2nd. Nancy Writebol, the other American infected, arrived Tuesday, August 5th. The Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Thomas Frieden, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday saying that it is unlikely that Ebola will spread in America.

Further addressing these concerns is the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs’ Helen Hamlyn Senior Fellow, Dr. Alexander van Tulleken. In a London Telegraph article, Dr. van Tulleken explains that Ebola has a few main problems as a virus: “it kills its victims too quickly and infected people are extremely symptomatic… it’s actually not that contagious. Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian man who brought Ebola to Lagos, doesn’t seem to have infected anyone else – despite being extremely unwell on a crowded plane.” Dr. Peter Piot, co-discoverer of the disease and the Director of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, says, “Spreading in the population here, I’m not that worried about it. I wouldn’t be worried to sit next to someone with Ebola virus on the Tube as long as they didn’t vomit on you or something.” In interviews with CNN, BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, and MSNBC, Dr. van Tulleken says it is important that no one in the West panic about this disease, “this isn’t a disease that’s coming to New York or London.” It is possible that there could be a case of the virus in a city like New York or London but, “our public health systems are so much better than Sierra Leone, Guinea, or Liberia that we are dealing with a totally different phenomenon here.” Dr. van Tulleken argues that although we should not worry about an Ebola epidemic spreading to the West, we should care about the disease, first and foremost for humanitarian reasons, “but also for reasons of self-interest.” To support his argument, Dr. van Tulleken emphasizes that, “The epidemic disease is a threat which desperately needs attention, and this epidemic is revealing weaknesses in the ability of the international system to respond.” In the largest Ebola epidemic ever, there are only two NGOs, MSF and Samaritan’s Purse who are currently responding in the West African region. According to MSF, they need twice as many people to respond to the rapidly growing epidemic: “We simply don’t have the numbers to delegate all the things that have to be done when we’re in the isolation ward…We would like to keep a visit between 45 minutes and one hour, but now, we’re stretching it to almost two hours. We put ourselves through a very strong psychological stress when we’re in personal protection gear, because it’s impermeable.” In Monrovia, Liberia the overcrowded and understaffed Elwa Hospital has had to turn away patients this week, in part because of the withdrawal of some international staff following the infection of Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol. Dr. van Tulleken sees the Ebola outbreak as an opportunity to “improve our regional and international co-ordination of epidemic control and the capacity of NGOs and UN agencies” because “this Ebola epidemic isn’t going to come to Europe but its spread and death toll is a warning that we aren’t prepared for diseases that could.”

 Updated 8/5/14

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