Editor’s note: Father Michael Bassano, MM, who grew up in Binghamton, continues to live and minister in the large refugee camp in Malakal, South Sudan. Father Mike has been there for several years; he is the Catholic chaplain in the camp of thousands of refugees. Father Mike was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse in 1975. Then, after some years of ministry in the diocese, including Utica and Binghamton, he heard the call to minister in an overseas mission with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers; he is now incardinated with Maryknoll.
The wheelbarrow journey
It was a week ago that the Catholic community was called upon to visit a woman named Nyacong Achol, who is 60 years old. She lives in a tent with her two older sisters and has been sick for a while, unable to eat much food. When I asked her sister if I could take her to the Doctors without Borders hospital inside the United Nations camp, they agreed to come with us and accompany her.
Because there was no transportation on a Sunday afternoon, we had to take her by a wheelbarrow. There was a young man who brought his wheelbarrow with blanket upon it and she lay down with all of us supporting her on at each side. Nyacong was diagnosed as having tuberculosis and is recovering gradually with the medicines prescribed to treat her illness. Helped by her sister, she is resting comfortably at the hospital.
A few days later, we went to visit a young woman in another tent whose name is Christina Oyai. She is just 24 years old and had given birth to stillborn child. She was suffering from a swollen abdomen as well as an infection in her right leg. We also brought her to the hospital by wheelbarrow. The doctor told me that she has ovarian cancer that was spreading throughout her body. Christina remains at the hospital with little hope of recovery. Her mother and family members are with her daily caring for her.
I shall never forget the wheelbarrow journey of the two women to the hospital who are continually in my thoughts and prayers.
Father Mike Bassano
Sept. 2, 2016
One small cake
Just recently in our Catholic church at the United Nations camp for internally displaced persons in Malakal, we celebrated the 13th anniversary of the drama and cultural dance youth group called “Kwasha.”
The word “kwasha” in Shilluk tribal language means prayers. This group, composed of 60 Catholic youths, expresses through its dramatic presentations, songs, and dances the prayerful hope for peace in South Sudan. The theme for the celebration was “Drama is the way to peace in our society.”
Near the end of the celebration, one small cake with 13 candles was presented to be eaten by over 600 people in attendance.
After the communal singing of “Happy Birthday” to the dance group, the cake was then cut into small pieces and shared by all.
It was just one small cake for so many that speaks volumes about the miraculous gift of generosity.
Father Mike Bassano
Sept. 2, 2016
Bridging the divide
The time had arrived to make a decision that would help build a sense of unity among the ethnic groups where I am living in Malakal, South Sudan.
Since February 2016, the Nuer and Shilluck tribes remained in the United Nations camp while the Dinka community was taken by the government army into the town because of fighting; another reason is that it is a state policy to occupy the town with the Dinka people rather than the original ethnic group to whom it belonged.
This created tension and anger among the ethnic groups. However, an awareness came to me, inspired by the Spirit, that as the Catholic Church we are to reach out to all people to bring reconciliation and peace in time of conflict. It is Christ who impels us to live as one in him with compassionate love.
So, on July 24, 2016, a group of our Catholic Community was given permission to go outside the UN camp in two cars into the town of Malakal to celebrate the Eucharist with our Dinka people. The celebration took place in the Cathedral Church of the Diocese called St Joseph. The church had been damaged during the fighting over the past few years.
The celebration was full of singing, dancing, and gratitude by the people that we had not forgotten them for they are part of us as the Family of God. Forty-seven children were baptized during the Mass. Smiles on people’s faces showed that this was a special moment in their lives.
What happened that day was memorable, for it was a celebration of bridging the divide among the diverse ethnic groups of our Catholic Community in the hope that all will live in peace in South Sudan one day.
Aug. 5, 2016
Joyful amidst the downpour
It was a rainy Sunday morning of July 31, 2016, in the UN Protection of Civilians Camp of Malakal, South Sudan. The roads were full of mud and very slippery. I was with a ministry guest named Sister Annette who had come to the camp to work with me and another member of our team in a workshop called Healing from Trauma.
We tried to get help to go to the Catholic church to celebrate the Eucharist in the camp but no one was available to take us there. I kept hoping that God would provide to help us be with the people even as the heavy rains continued to fall.
Finally, a friend of mine who was one of the guards at the camp called someone who was able to drive us to the church on the slippery, muddy dirt road. I wondered how many people would come to the church in the rain since we were arriving late for the celebration. But to my surprise, the church was full of people ready to pray and worship. They were joyful amidst the downpour of rain, finding shelter from the storm as together they celebrated their faith in God that gives strength and meaning to their lives.
Aug. 5, 2016
Sadness in the heart
The two days of Feb. 17-18, 2016, have brought sadness in my heart. Both the Shilluk and Dinka tribes began fighting each other in the United Nations Camp for internally displaced people in Malakal.
What made matters worse was the entry of the government army into the camp, shooting guns and looting as they sided with the Dinka tribe. As a result of the two-day fighting 18 civilians (other reports indicate 26) were killed with over 38 seriously wounded, with hospital clinics and tents of both Nuer and Shilluk tribes burnt to the ground. The Dinka tribe fled the camp to Malakal Town in fear of revenge killing.
Both tribes which number over 33, 000 people had to be relocated to another section of the camp. I have come to know and love many of the families in the camp who are from all tribes in the Catholic community as we gather for Eucharist on Sunday in the church.
The Christian churches as well as the mosque in the camp were not burned or looted. Since we could not get security clearance by the United Nations to pray in the Catholic church, we decided on the following Friday to pray the way of the cross where the people were right in the middle of the makeshift tents and shipping containers where they were living.
It was an experience of a living way of the cross as Christ is now suffering in the lives of the people of South Sudan in these difficult times. On Sunday, even though security clearance was not given, the Catholic community decided to take the risk and go to the church near the burnt-out area of the camp to pray and I followed them.
The church was over half full of people. The children loved singing and praying to God that they had survived the terrible ordeal. All I could reflect upon was how courageous and resilient they were as nothing was going to stop them from going to pray and worship together at the church.
This Catholic community in the UN Camp is an inspiration to me for having nothing, losing everything; they are sustained by their faith in God that gives them strength to face whatever may come each day.
I feel heartbroken seeing the plight of the people especially the children who ran from the fighting with just the clothes they were wearing. When I told them I was sorry for what had happened to them, some responded with sadness in their eyes. They said, “No problem, we will get through this.”
Even when I saw the children, who greeted me with smiles on their faces, how could my heart not be uplifted in faith? We are trying along with UN staff and humanitarian workers to bring medical assistance, food, water and sanitary facilities, blankets, and mosquito nets for the people in these times of hardship. I believe God is watching over and protecting the people at every moment.
Words cannot describe the sadness I feel in my heart for the people and children who have suffered so much since the civil war began in December 2013. Yet sadness gives way to hope in believing that God walks with the people in their suffering, and that a new dawning day of peace will come.
March 10, 2016