A Maryknoll priest writes of life at a displaced persons camp in East Africa under the threatening cloud of pandemic
Greetings from South Sudan, where we, like much of the world, are under lockdown, and domestic and international airline flights are canceled. To date, there are still only five confirmed cases of the coronavirus nationwide, but without any testing on a national scale, we do not know how many are infected and all we can do is hope for the best.
We have all been affected by the coming of COVID-19 into our world. Here at our United Nations’ camp for the Protection of Civilians in the northern city of Malakal, we are restricted from visiting our people or having any large gatherings or church activities.
The other day I was given special permission to go walking in the camp—while keeping to social distancing protocols. Nonetheless, I felt the warmth and heartfelt greeting of people and children as we saw one another from a safe distance. It was a sharing of loving appreciation for each other.
At the suggestion of Malakal Bishop Stephen Nyodho Ador, we tape the Sunday liturgy on our public radio station, called Nile Radio, with the help of some youth from our camp’s Catholic Church. In this way we are able to remain very much connected with all the people of the camp, as well as those of our Catholic community, through prayer united in faith and hope for better times to come.
What we are doing to prevent the spread of this disease has filled me with awareness that there is a bond of oneness uniting all humanity, which is God’s great gift to us, and it fills me with immense gratitude.
Besides the five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Sudan, there were also 267 suspected cases in this East African nation, but fortunately they all came back negative. There are no cases reported to date in the camp or in the city of Malakal, the country’s second-largest city after Juba, the capital.
But there is plenty of concern. The camp and Malakal are close to the country’s northern border with Sudan, from which South Sudan gained its independence in 2011. It is a porous border, where people can enter South Sudan without being checked for the virus. Recently, 30 people entered the camp from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and there is worry they may carry the virus here.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan had 92 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within its borders as of mid-April 2020.
The U.N. camp has 30,000 people internally displaced because of the civil war that broke out in 2013, only two years after independence, and we are trying hard to help everyone here understand the seriousness of the coronavirus situation. The Doctors Without Borders hospital in the camp and another hospital set up by military doctors from India, with an intensive care unit that can accommodate six people, are preparing for what may come, and isolation wards are being set up in anticipation.
The camp, which is composed mostly of Nuer and Shilluk ethnic groups, is divided into three sections: the administrative compound, where the U.N. staff live and have offices along with peacekeeping troops; the humanitarian hub, where aid and relief agencies have offices and accommodations; and the Protection of Civilians Camp, where our displaced people live in tents.
Under lockdown we are surrounded by government troops and not allowed outside to go anywhere. Within the camp, permission is needed to enter any of the other two sections, particularly the Protection of Civilians area.
With our church activities canceled, we broadcast our Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday observances on our radio station. It was a unique experience going live on radio with a few of the youth with me singing and praying as we gave the Easter message of hope to our people in the camp in these difficult times of coronavirus. It was a wonderful and new way of being Church together without assembling physically.
I am the only priest here in the camp, although the bishop and two South Sudanese priests from Malakal visit occasionally. But I find support from the people and the staff in the U.N. Refugee Agency compound, where I am currently living. This community is watching out and caring for me as their elder father.
In my quiet time alone in my shipping container room, I find time to rest, read the Scriptures, listen to music, watch the small TV that was given to me and write poetry. In the early morning and late evening, I take a walk around our U.N. mission compound to watch the sunrise and sunset while getting some exercise. I keep in touch by phone and email with my older brother and my nieces in New York, who are well despite having to remain in their own homes.
It is not easy to be restricted from visiting hospitals, visiting the displaced families or having church activities, but I do what I can in this situation, and I pray.
I pray for those who are sick and for those who have died of the virus everywhere in the world. And I pray especially for my Maryknoll family, all the priests, brothers, sisters, lay missioners, and our extended family of supporters, all around the world.
This time teaches me, as they say, “to go with the flow” of all that’s happening around us, and to trust more than ever in God.
I’ll close with these words of solace from the late Bertha Calloway, an African American activist and historian: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
Featured Image: Father Bassano greets the people at a United Nations’ camp for the Protection of Civilians in Malakal, South Sudan, amid the COVID-19 lockdown in the country. (Courtesy of Michael Bassano/South Sudan)