Continued from Part 1
By: Fr. Raimundo Rocha, mccj Leer Parish Preist
The most dramatic moment – We were welcomed in Beer chapel by local Christians and settled there thinking that we were safe. We assumed the government troops would reach Leer soon, but through the main road. Now we were 28 km away from Leer, and so, safe. What happened was that Darfurian rebels and SPLA soldiers attacked us just one hour after our arrival in Beer. They came from Mirmir through the bush and were divided into three groups. Those people do not knock on your door, they arrived shooting at us. When we heard the gunshots and the sound of bullets flying over our heads, we took what we could and ran into the bush. I ran with three bags. Fr. Ernest ran with me and also the lady with her child. People ran in different directions. The gunfire was intense. I fell down three times. At some point I had given up, I could run no more and was ready if they came to shoot me. Fr. Ernest was encouraging me. An old man, whose marriage I had assisted at, appeared from nowhere. He put a bed sheet on the ground for me to rest and took my heaviest bag. Another bag was given to one of the sisters.
We had more gunfire and more running. The lady with the baby was left behind. When I and Fr. Ernest got completely exhausted, we threw ourselves on the ground in the middle of the dry grass under some palm trees and remained there unmoved for more than one hour. We were not able to figure out what had happened to the rest of the group. We thought some could be dead. The gunfire went on from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Suddenly, two cattle keepers walked by and saw us lying on the ground. We indentified ourselves. They moved on and came back later with Rebeka, a lady of the church, who took us to where the rest of the groups was. We were glad to see they were alive too. We miraculously escaped death. No doubt God protected us all along. The lady with the baby and a few others were still missing. We had information they had run very far and would be alive. We spent the night in a house nearby in terrible fear.
Reaching another location and reality – Early in the morning we moved to a far off location in the swamps. There we would be safer. We were welcomed by the owner of the house. There we set home and would sleep on the ground for the next twenty days. Little by little the group was getting together once again. We felt so relieved and grateful to God. Now we learned that one Nuer person was shot dead, two of our cars were taken and another car was set on fire by the Darfurians and government soldiers while civilians and other military rebels were looting the mission. We had lost almost everything. Most of us remained with the clothes we were wearing. We shared our clothes and other items with those who had little. I was able to save my documents, old computer, Holy Communion and a few clothes. And so was Fr. Jacob. Some money was also saved with which we would by our food.
The new location was a real swampy area and very far. There are hippos and crocodiles. It was cold at night and very wind during the day. It soon became crowded. Many other displaced families joined us. One day I counted over 140 mosquito nets tents each sheltering three or more people. We were nearly 500 people. Food was getting scarce. Local Christians were collecting food to feed us. We got four goats and a bull which we shared among all. The same we did with dry fish. Hunt was also part of the menu (buffalo, hippo and crocodile). We drank from the same swampy water we bathed with, we just boiled it. I had some medicine which I was sharing with the sick. Most children were affected with cough and malnutrition. Some sick with malaria. It is the burning season and to make things worse, fire was put in the dry grass. On 10 February a big fire came towards our camp. We run for a short distance till the fire was extinguished. Now most firewood was burnt. That bush was also our ‘toilet’.
Solidarity in difficult times – We were in the same situation as all the people. We had very little to rely on, but we all had God. In fact, every evening at 5 p.m. we celebrated mass having an improvised small altar and people seating on the ground. We were sure that many would be praying for us around the world. We never lost hope that we would come out. The biggest challenge was communication. The catechists plus two of us walked three hours till they found a satellite phone with which they were able to communicate with Juba. We felt much relaxed because people in Juba and our families and friends would know that we were alive and well. We also came to know that Fr. Francis Chemello was still in Panyinjiar and Fr. Michael Barton had reached Old Fangak mission and Fr. Stephen was taken to Bentiu. We hoped they could rescue us, but UNIMISS does not do rescue operations since a helicopter was shot down last year. We intensified our prayers. We got all possible support from some local Christians. If, on the one hand, the very people we have been trying to help and serve, including some Christians, looted our properties and made us feel sad, on the other hand, the solidarity of some Christians made us proud of them.
We ate little, but never lacked food. They shared the little they had with us. The regional catechist of Leer walked two days looking for us. When he found us he shared with us the money of a goat he had sold to help his handicapped son. And there were many signs like that. We were worried and anxious also because the longer we would remain there the more we would be a burden on people. However, the only way to evacuate us was to go to Leer airstrip. So, I wrote a letter to the commissioner to enquire if it was safe to move to Leer and if we could stay in our houses. At the same time the commissioner was searching for us unsuccessfully. When we got a reply that we could walk to the main road so that he could pick us up by car, we decided to move back to Leer next morning at dawn. We left the place at 6 a.m. It was very cool and we were helped by the moon light. We walked for four hours. Sr. Agata, a 67 years old nun, was really brave. Some Christians walked us up to Mirmir. We walked in fear since some armed youth were threatening us because they thought our presence there would attract the soldiers. When we reached Mirmir we learned that the cars went to another location to collect us. We spent two days in Mirmir.
The soldiers were friendly and supportive. No harassment or animosity. They gave us food and mosquito nets and mattresses to spend the night. Transport was delayed. Later we learned that the reason was an ambush on them. So, they had to chase away those ambushing them and clear the way between Leer and Mirmir. Finally, transport arrived and we were taken to Leer in great fear of a possible ambush. We reached Leer on Sunday evening February 16 and went to stay in our houses. It was heartbreaking to see our mission houses all looted. Only the buildings were standing with doors, gates and bathrooms all damaged. Everything else had been taken by both civilians and soldiers. The church was not touched, but all the buildings in local material were burnt down. It is very sad indeed to see huge investments and years of hard work all destroyed. However, our lives and our faith were not taken. The possibility to go out to Juba was more real and that night we celebrated a thanksgiving mass for having reached this far.