Binghamton native relates stories from camp in South Sudan

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

A mid the dust, the crowded conditions, and the poverty in a refugee camp in South Sudan, Binghamton native Father Michael Bassano is amazed by the resilience that he witnesses.

The Maryknoll missionary called the Sun recently from his quarters near the Protection of Civilians (POC) camp outside the town of Malakal in northeastern South Sudan. The civilians had to move to the camp from their homes because of South Sudan’s civil war.

Father Bassano, the Catholic chaplain of the POC, told of a 12-year-old boy named Muoch Chol Kuon who came to the POC clinic from the village of Nasir southeast of Malakal.

The boy was bitten by a snake and because his village has no hospital, he had to be rushed to the POC by car. The snake bite infected the lower part of his left leg, and the POC clinic had to amputate just below the knee several weeks ago.

Father Bassano sees Muoch every day at the clinic. Despite the amputation, “this kid is so full of life,” Father Bassano said. “When you see him he smiles. He has sparkle in his eye and he wants to sit down with you and learn some English words and he writes them down.”

The porridge is waiting

One thing that touched him on a recent visit to check on the boy, Father Bassano said, was the presence of two cups of porridge. The boy told him: “‘One is for me, one is for you.’”

“So every time we have a cup of porridge together,” said Father Bassano, who values “just being present to one another. He looks forward to that and I do too. … He has the porridge waiting for me, waits for me before he drinks his.”

He figures the boy is going to make it “even though he’s been through a lot.”

Father Bassano told another story of a woman named Elizabeth, who is about 50 years old. He said the people of the POC camp live very close together in makeshift tents and houses, and there is tension among families at times.

Elizabeth apparently got into a quarrel with a relative of hers next door and the relative grabbed her by the throat as Elizabeth was sticking her tongue out. The neighbor bit part of her tongue off.

“The most amazing part of this story is she came to our church last Sunday with us,” Father Bassano said. “And she didn’t say very much but she handed me a letter and she asked all of us in the church to pray for her which we did.”

He quoted her letter:   

“I greet all believers in the name of Jesus Christ. My name is Elizabeth Williams. I will thank God for what he has done in my life. I was bitten on the tongue two weeks ago. I was in hospital for 15 days. I could not drink water or eat food, but now I can eat and drink and I will thank God for that.

“Now I still am under treatment, I will encourage you in the Gospel of John 3:16,” which says:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

“She concludes,” Father Bassano said, “by saying, ‘I write you this message because my voice is not clear. Thank you, good luck, Elizabeth.’

His source of inspiration

“Isn’t that quite a letter? She gave that to me on Sunday. During the homily I introduced her and had her stand so people could bless her and give their thanks that she is with us.

“An amazing event. … People who have been through so much …, so devoted to God. They certainly inspire me in my own faith when I hear their stories.”

The political situation in South Sudan remains uncertain. In an email, Father Bassano said:

“The transitional government to take place on November 12 has been delayed for 100 days until February so that both sides can come to concrete solutions to the security arrangements regarding a unified army as well as sufficient protection to the opposition leader and vice president Riek Machar.

“Another key issue is the number of states and land boundaries. We hope and pray for the best to come next year especially the gift of lasting peace that our people here in the camp can one day return to their homes.”

A highlight recently in the POC camp was a weekend Bible marathon, the continuous reading of the New Testament in several languages, at the suggestion of the Anglican pastor in the POC. Assisting were soldiers from the United Kingdom.

People read a chapter for 10 minutes “to bring people together around the word of God, to proclaim peace throughout the land — a Bible reading for peace,” Father Bassano said. He added: “A new experience for us. … We’re very pleased that it went well.”

Also, Father Bassano celebrated Mass on All Saints Day and All Souls Day. At Mass he cited Jeremiah 15:16:    “When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart.”

He then told the people: “That is what we are doing. … And with that joy and happiness we will bring peace to South Sudan.”

With the new bishop

He is looking forward to the Feast of Christ the King on Nov. 24. His parishioners are very excited that they will attend the Mass concelebrated by the new bishop in Malakal, Bishop Stephen Nyodho Ador Mojwok. Father Bassano’s parish choir will join with the choir of the Catholic church in town.

His parishioners will go into town without being threatened by the government army, Father Bassano said — “sign of peaceful coexistence in our area at least for the moment; those are small, positive steps.”

The rain has finished in South Sudan and November starts the very dry season, he said, with “a lot of dust on the road and all over the place. … We call this the cool season.”

“Nice and cool even as we approach Christmastime,” he said, with temperatures probably in the 50s and 60s in the morning and evening. It still heats up to 90 to 95 degrees during the day, he said, but the humidity is lower at this time of year.

He sees a lot of people in the POC hospital now with respiratory problems either from the dust or from the transition from wet to dry season. At least they get medication, he said.

“We enjoy what we have, we enjoy the moment, enjoy the cool,” he said. “Our people look forward to every celebration.”

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