“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself
and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34
By: Fr. Raimundo Rocha, mccj Leer Parish Preist
Initial remarks – The narrative that follows is not meant to be any kind of official report of the members of the Comboni Family who work in Leer mission in South Sudan on what happened to them over the past three weeks. It is, however, intended to be a personal sharing of what happened in Leer mission following the outbreak of violence that started in Juba December 15, 2013 with particular emphasis on the experience the missionaries in Leer went through and the outcome of it. It mostly reflects the personal experience and views of the author without neglecting the role of the two groups of missionaries involved. For security reasons, the name of some places and of some people will be omitted.
Leer mission and the missionaries – Leer mission (Saint Joseph the Worker Parish) is comprised of Leer, Mayiendit, Koch and Panyijiar counties, in the southern of Unity Sate. It is under the Diocese of Malakal and has been entrusted to the pastoral care of the Comboni Missionaries. The whole area is inhabited by the Nuer people and is a land rich in oil and other natural resources. We are currently five Comboni Missionaries working in Leer: Fr. Francesco Chemello (Italy), Fr. Raimundo Rocha (Brazil), Fr. Yacob Solomon (Ethiopia), Br. Nicola Bortoli (Italy) and Br. Peter Fafa (Togo). In January joined the mission in Leer the scholastic (seminarian) Ketema Dagne (Ethiopia) and Fr. Michael Barton (USA). They went there to learn the Nuer language. The Comboni Missionaries Sisters working in Leer are Sr. Agata Catone (Italy), Sr. Carmirta Júlia (Ecuador), Sr. Laura Perina (Italy) and Sr. Lorena Morales (Costa Rica).
Our guests - On Friday, Jan. 10, we welcomed Fr. Stephen and Fr. Ernest Adwok who fled Mayon and Bentiu. We accommodated them together with a married couple. Fr. Joseph Makuey, also a diocesan priest working in Rubknona, went to stay in Koch. A lady from Juba, with her 17 months old daughter, who had been trading in Bentiu, asked for help and was also accommodated in our mission house in Leer on 24 January. She walked all the way from Bentiu and spent two weeks in the bush before reaching Leer. She is a widow and belongs to another tribe and knew no one in Leer.
The conflicts – When violence broke out in Juba on December 15 no one could expect it would spread so rapidly across the country. While getting to know what was going on in Juba, we in Leer went on with our daily routine, but with concerns. Soon violence broke out also in Bentiu, Unity State. That raised even more concerns because Bentiu is located 130 km away from Leer. At this point the army had split and the opposition was in control of Bentiu. Fighting was occurring and people started fleeing Bentiu towards Leer. An estimated 30 thousand people had fled to Leer. Concerns were even higher, and yet, we hoped violence could not reach Leer.
The conflicts and change of environment in Leer – Since conflicts began in Bentiu the atmosphere in Leer changed. There were days of high tensions alternated with days of relative calm, but there has never been a real fighting till the day we left. Leer market was the only one supplying food for the rest of the region. The movement of soldiers in Leer increased when government troops advanced and took control of Bentiu. Leer MSF hospital was operating normally. We, instead, cancelled most of our pastoral programmes and remained in Leer monitoring the situation and updating both the Comboni Province and UNIMISS on security matters. Information came that the government troops were advancing towards Leer. On Monday, Jan. 13, gunshots were heard all through the night. At 4 a.m. some catechists came to inform that they were fleeing Leer to the villages for they heard troops would have reached Koch (Tharjath, 55 km from Leer). We held a community meeting at 5 a.m. and decided to remain in Leer and to run to the bush only if we would be under big danger. The gunshots were a kind of warning for the population to leave the town. We learned later that it was also to scare people and loot the market and residences as civilians were moving out. In fact, the market was looted. MSF team of expats evacuated. Tensions and fears increased. The possibility for the war to come to Leer now was real. Leer had been very crowded the days before. Now became almost a deserted town. Up to this point the army in opposition (rebels) was in control of Leer. There was no fight, but people would not return to their houses and there was no harassment towards the missionaries.
On Sunday, Jan. 19, we prayed in four different locations within and around Leer. Fr. Francis Chemello had gone to Mayiendit and then to Panyijiar since early January. Again on Sunday, Jan. 26, we prayed in six different locations. This time we saw that the situation was getting worse. Food was getting finished. There was lack of clean water, sanitation and medicine. Later on that week two Comboni Sisters, Laura and Lorena, decided to move out to stay where people were. They went to a community 6 km away from Leer. At this point the government troops had reached Mirmir area (21 km from Leer). Fighting in Mirmir went on for some days. We could hear the sound of heavy artillery from far. Tensions were mounting, fears were increasing. The remaining civilians fled Leer. The possibility to evacuate the mission at this point was pretty difficult, but still possible, if any of us wished to. However, we decided to remain. On Wednesday, Jan. 29, five different groups of police/soldiers attempted to take our cars. Some were drunk. Leer MSF hospital and other compounds belonging to NGOs had already been looted. The mission compound could be the next. I reported the provincial that the situation became a lot more tense and worsened and confessed that I was afraid. Both phone networks were down. Our internet was the only means of communication. That night we received information from a MSF coordinator saying that in the front line of the troops there were the Darfurians rebels who allied to the government troops. They would not respect the church as the army soldiers might do. Meanwhile, I received a lot of appeals from family members, friends and other missionaries to consider leaving the mission, but that was too late and we had made up our minds as to stay.
The fleeing of the missionaries to the bush – On January 30, after the Morning Prayer, we met and decided to leave the church and seek refuge in the bush where people had gone. Fr. Stephen had already left with the married couple we hosted. We decided to go to a location called Gandor hoping to find Fr. Stephen there for he was holding a Thuraya (satellite phone). We packed what we could take, loaded the cars with food and other items and left at 9:45 a.m. with three vehicles. In my bag I made sure I put the Holy Eucharist and what was necessary for prayers, a statue of Our Lady Aparecida of Brazil, my old computer, documents and a few clothes. Before leaving, we informed the Comboni Missionaries and Sisters about our decision and where we were going to. We did not have many options. Leer is isolated. We would be cornered anywhere we went. So we went off. Now we had become also displaced persons, just like our people. Fr. Michael Barton decided to remain in the mission house. As soon as we left, people, both civilians and military, started looting our mission houses and the mission schools (VTC). As we moved out, we came across Sr. Lorena and a lady who were heading for Leer to see how we were. We took them back to the place where they were before and there decided to move further up to a safer place together with some catechists. Gandhor would be still close to Leer. We went instead to Beer (28 km from Leer). One of our cars got stuck in the sand. That delayed the journey. Our group increased because some catechists and a couple from Yambio joined us. Excluding the Nuer people among us, we were ten missionaries, one diocesan priest, a lady with her child and the married couple from Yambio. On the way to Beer we met Fr. Stephen. We informed him about our destination and he was planning to join us later on. We finally arrived in Beer chapel at 1:45 p.m., had a tea with some biscuits and decided to rest.