Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Letter from South Sudan: War through a mother’s eyes

Wangira Dorcas Osunga
Kenya, Nairobi

Our village Mading is at the heart of South Sudan. We are 120 miles away from Juba, the capital. We are at the East Bank, fed by the White Nile. The weather is tropical, with a rare wet season. Our land is not green, nor does it bear much fruit. Perhaps that is why most of our people are malnourished, haggard, and weak.

We have lost many children even before the war began. All my sister’s children had polio.

When the rebels came, we had to leave the children behind. My sister died that day. We still don’t know what the rebels did to the children, whether they are dead or still alive. We just remember the gun shots that rent the air, the screams that reigned supreme with each shot.

We knew that the rebels would soon find us and had no other option but to run. It was our darkest hour. The chief smelled blood. The wind carried with it a hatred so great. How is it possible that people forgot what it meant to be human? How is it possible that children of the same Nile could turn against each other the way we were doing?

Everyone tried to scamper to safety. It was a dark and horrifying hour. We did not even know where we were going. Most of us had no money, very few belongings. At that moment, where danger lurks, you think of nothing but your life. Possessions all become like melted dross. Our chief suggested that we all run toward Malakal. Perhaps there we would be safe. There was so much fear in his eyes. But he dared not show it.

To our chief, the blood of the Dinka is red. The blood of the Nuer is also red. We are both children of the same Nile. He believed that nothing gave us the right to fight each other. We could be poor but for as long as we were united, we had what we truly needed.

There are children in our village with red hair. It stands out sharply juxtaposed against our dark chocolate skin that has been kissed by the sun. Their bellies are really swollen and big, like pregnant women. No one really knows what this is. Once, a health worker from Malek told us the problem was something known as “kwashiokor”. But no one believed him. You see most of us have not yet embraced modern medicine.

We do not like doctors, syringes, tablets, and that thing they put on your chest to hear your heart beat. Most of us are afraid. We have always believed in our traditional healers. They have the power to heal using the herbs that Mother Earth gave us. They have honed healing from herbs. There are trees whose sap soothe the greatest of aches and pains. There are leaves that make the ringworm on children’s heads disappear.

Once, there was an outbreak of a strange plague in the village. Everyone had a running stomach. I had a fever and strange chills in my body. Then there was much vomiting. The children were the worst hit. Most people said it was because of the water we drank from the Nile that day. Others think it was a disease called malaria. Even our traditional healers did not know what to do.

I strongly believe that my brother’s children would have been saved. My brother is a very stubborn man. He never listens to anyone. When his children fell sick, his wife kept pleading that they should be taken to the hospital in Malakal. My brother would never let her take them to hospital. She begged him but he wouldn’t listen. They brought a traditional healer.

He gave them some herbs that had been ground into fine powder. It only made things worse. Their little girl slowly started turning pale, fever scaling high. The healer went away and said that maybe we needed a faith healer. There is a saying that when a man falls to the ground, his gods can lift him up again.

We all prayed for the children. We watched them shrivel and die, especially those who had eaten the water lillies by the bank. But death could no longer be stilled. It was one of the saddest days; burying many tiny bodies together. Mothers cried and refused to be comforted.

My sister still had her children. They had survived polio but not the plague. Their mother had always kept them locked in the house. Maybe they didn’t get sick because they didn’t play with other children. They were always locked away. But once when they came out, the other children ran away from them, laughing that they were bewitched. People strongly believe in witchcraft, that someone can cast an evil eye on you and then you get terribly ill.

Once health workers came during an immunization programme. They came to give the little children drops, drops which would help them not get sick. But chaos had erupted when they came. All the men and women chased them away. It was utter chaos.

So many people have tried to tell the story of what was really happening here in the South Sudan since the war broke out when the rebels came. I have heard that the world has seen images of dead bodies lined on our street. Innocent people are dying. Especially the women and children. There are women who have been raped and left dying.

The Chief decided that we should run to the teaching hospital in Malakal. There are people who have been there before. They would show us the way. We didn’t have much food, save for the wild fruits. We decided that we would leave the elderly, the blind and even the disabled behind. It was such a difficult decision. Some refused to be parted from their loved ones. And we had to leave them behind. Everyone kept on saying that they would slow us down. We had to run. Even before we could get there, a herald came running with devastating news.

We heard that the rebels had already got to Malakal. What they did is the worst thing a human being could do to someone else. The hospital had been attacked. Wards had been razed to the ground. The attackers stole medical equipment and wound dressings. The opened fire on the patients. They took the weak patients and even the elderly out of their wards, killing them one by one.

Most of our people have been ravaged by the cruel arm of war. All they want is peace, to live in harmony and build a future for their children. Now, they have been forcefully rooted out of their homes and forced to be refugees in their own land. Our land has spit us out. So much blood has been spilled.   And we are dying one by one. There are ghosts of wounded men, women, and children roaming amongst us. We are afraid, moving not knowing where we are going.  Many of us are sick and wounded. We are hungry. We are slowly dying. We do not have water. We do not have food. We need help.

WANGIRA DORCAS OSUNGA was born and raised in Kenya. She cares deeply for peace, health care, and literacy for young children and women in vulnerable places. Dorcas is a student of history and the world. She was born in a community where traditional medicine and faith  healing are still relevant yet controversial. South Sudan is close to her heart because the nation was born on the date of her birth. Though not a doctor, she strongly believes in telling stories of wounded people, where they can find help and about the people who offer them hope.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 6, Issue 3 – Summer 2014

Summer 2014



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