By: Fr. Raimundo Rocha, mccj Leer Parish Preist
Coming to Juba – On February 16 we were informed that there would be a flight for next day, but there would be only four seats available. We met and discerned who could be the first four passengers to leave. We let those who were sick to travel first. These were Sr. Agata, the lady with her sick daughter, an old lady and Sr. Carmita. They flew out on a Caravan Cesna by UNIMISS/WFP. Nine of us remained behind for another flight which would come two days later. This allowed us time to clean the mess in both houses and to recover some books. We were given some more food, which was added to some food sent from Juba by plane. Finally, we left Leer on February 20 at 2:30 p.m. on a Mi-8 UNIMISS/WFP helicopter. After a lading in Rumbek for refuelling, we reached Juba at 5:45 p.m. all exhausted but happy. We were warmly welcomed by both MCCJ and CMS communities of Juba. We met again Fr. Francis Chemello. I was able to talk to my mother, a sister of mine and a nephew by phone. While in exultation we were also mindful of our people who remained behind in the bush in fear and lacking food, clean water, shelter and medicine.
Decision to stay in Leer – In Leer itself, up to the day we left it, there was no fighting. When Darfurian rebels and government troops arrived there the town was deserted and the rebels had gone into the bush. Yet, they burnt all the grass houses. There are reports that some people were killed and women raped. A woman would have been raped by seven men. Only brick and zinc buildings remain standing. The entire Leer population and some thousands from Bentiu are still in the bush right now. Only some women go to Leer looking for food. Men fear to go. Also, some Bentiu residents go to Leer to be taken back to Bentiu. Government forces are in control.
While all this took place, many people wondered why we stayed in Leer when we knew it was extremely dangerous to do so. On this I share my opinion, which may coincide with that of my colleague missionaries. Actually, I was afraid to stay, honestly, and was the only one who expressly told the provincial by email that would leave Leer, should I see my life at risk and if that was safe enough for a plane to land. Some family members, other missionaries and friends were encouraging me to leave and come back later with my colleagues. The question I kept asking myself was when my life would be at risk and when would it be the right time to leave and how. It was not an easy discernment. What weighted more in my decision to stay was the fact that, if I left to Juba, leaving all my colleagues behind to suffer alone and even being killed, I would never forgive myself for such an attitude. My religious community is my family. I would not abandon my family. I would rather face all hardships, even death, than to remain alive and safe in pain and suffering. This was one of my feelings. As for the two religious communities, what made us to stay basically was the hope that government troops would not reach Leer and there would be no fighting in town. And if they came at all, we hoped that they would respect us as church and would not loot the mission properties. We also hoped that the cease-fire agreement would be implemented and conflicts would end soon, instead it was violated and violence was escalating.
Besides, we thought that our presence around Leer would somehow inhibit atrocities and harm towards innocent civilians. We want also to give hope to our people and stand by their side at this war. We had been there for them, we would stay with them. However, we were very aware of the risks. We were not naïve, did not underestimate the situation and did not want to put any one in trouble either. It was our missionary option. We only considered running into the bush, if that was necessary, but to remain. In fact, that is what happened. All along we tried to make decisions together. Both the Provincial Superior of the Comboni Missionaries and the Provincial Superior of the Comboni Sisters respected our decisions and supported us all through. No decision was imposed on us. It was our free and conscious choice and we have never been neglected.
Final remarks – We are now in Juba and for the time being we will remain around recovering from stress and tiredness. Juba is safe. We shall monitor the situation in Leer and in the rest of the country. We pray and hope that this war may come to an end soon and peace may be re-established. I am very grateful to the God of life and love for all God has done for me, for the sisters, for my colleagues and the people who helped us.
I want to thank each and every one of you who has been praying hard for our safety, life and rescue. God listened to yours and our prayers. I believe in miracles. They happened. Now we are fine, but our people are suffering a lot in the bush and swamps. Please pray for them and do what you can to help them. Thank you to Br. Peppo and to Sr. Anna in Juba who mobilized ‘half of the world’ to take us to Juba. Thanks a lot also to the provincials Sr. Giovanna and Fr. Daniele Moschetti for the trust and all support. Thanks to Fr. Moschetti and to the Comboni Missionaries in Brazil who showed their solidarity and kept my family informed. Many thanks to UNIMISS/WFP for coordinating the flights. Also, my immense gratitude to all Christians and other people who helped us in Leer in many different ways. I am still recomposing myself and trying to make sense of a lot of things, but I am happy and proud of being a missionary member of the Comboni Family. May St. Daniel Comboni and St. Josephine Bakhita intercede for us and for the peoples of South Sudan. Remain blessed and in peace.