A Missionary’s Precious Memories

Today I happened upon an intensely moving scene: on a visit to our Mill Hill residents in the Zilverheuvel (Former Vrijland) care home next door to my own place of residence I overheard a voice reading aloud in the visiting area of the souterrain. Intrigued, I went over to investigate and happened upon two brothers (Gerard and Bertus) of Fr Alfons ter Beke MHM , who, on a visit, were reading to him a letter of his to his mother taken from the family archive.

Fr Alfons ter Beke has been with us in Oosterbeek now ever since a fatal accident in Khartoum a few decades ago left him severely crippled. Confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak he lives a life of total dependence. Family visits are a welcome distraction – if exhausting at times.

Alfons was a passionate missionary in Cameroon and Sudan. In the letter his brothers were reading to him he describes the dramatic situation prevailing in Juba, South Sudan, in October 1988, when South Sudanese freedom fighters were waging a cruel war of attrition with the central government.

(Fons Eppink)

An extract:

Juba. South Sudan. October 1988.

Maybe the mail from Nairobi will be sent here this week, because people say that food is being flown to Juba, well that has to happen quickly, before people die of hunger.

Yesterday a young man came to me in tears, crying from powerlessness. “My wife and I had our first child exactly one month ago. I am desperate because my wife is breastfeeding less and less . We have not had a hearty meal for weeks now and live on the tubers of the water lilies that we cook and that we take from the Nile. You can’t buy powdered milk anywhere. I am so afraid that not only my baby but also my wife is going to die.”

I know the couple and I feel deeply sorry for them, but that doesn’t help them much. The only thing such a woman needs is a good nutritious meal. Sometimes I think: Should I just take out what little food I still have in stock for myself and give it away ? But that would be very unwise. It is really hoped that food will be flown to Juba soon.

The funny thing is that people say there is enough food is available in Kampala (Uganda), or in Nairobi, (Kenya), or also in Zaire – where it is rotting. But they cannot get it here to Juba, because Khartoum does not give permission for landing rights here in Juba. The Arabs (Central Government) here have the right in their hands. In my previous letter I wrote that there are 10,000 Arab soldiers here, but yesterday I heard that there are 20,000. What I would like those soldiers to see is that the entire population will die. The head of state also said this in just as many words a year ago: “I am not interested in the people in the South of this country. The only thing I am interested in in the southern part is the country.”

In other words, people are clearly using hunger as a weapon. Hunger does indeed bring people to their knees. After all, you do anything to get something to eat. We have now installed soup kitchens all over Juba, where what little food is left is cooked and where children who are still able to walk are fed a little food once a day, just enough to keep them alive. Of course, the adults also want to eat with us, but that doesn’t happen. It’s quite a battle sometimes.

The day before yesterday they “caught” two thieves, two boys who stole pans, clothes to sell and also a small cooking pan. The lady of the house had left the house for a moment when those boys quickly went inside and took her clothes and her two pans and the small cooking pan from that hut – to sell them somewhere or exchange them for food. Out of sheer poverty, that is. And It hurt me to my core to see how people take the law into their own hands. Both boys were tied with ropes and beaten and kicked so horribly. I wonder if they will survive. These are all bad consequences of the war.       

On the BBC (English News Service) we hear that food is being flown to Juba and is arriving here. This message was relayed to London by Khartoum , the central government. But it’s a big lie.

So far not a grain of corn has arrived. Except for the soldiers. How long could this go on?

Peter van Krieken (UN representative) has been very busy with Ugandans this past week and to repatriate Zaireans, i.e. to allow them to return to their own country. They were supposed to go first on Thursday morning. Rows of trucks with large UN flags on it. Soldiers would go ahead to check the road for mines and such. They  left, but came back to Juba in the evening. Reason: Major disagreement with the Kenyan truck drivers who insisted on joining that convoy, but were not allowed to do so because it was exclusively a UN matter for the Ugandans and the Zaireans. It was quite a fight.

The next day, Friday, they tried again. Same again. Big disagreement. The Kenyan truck drivers insisted on joining that convoy. The soldiers tried with all their might to keep those people away from the convoy . When that didn’t work, everything was simply postponed.

Another attempt was made on Saturday. This time the soldiers threatened to shoot all the tires of Kenyan drivers who would try to join the UN convoy with their truck. So basically the refugees left, with a UN flag on every truck so that they would not be attacked along the way. But when they were 12 km from Juba, it was decided to return to Juba. Truck drivers secretly followed after the convoy of trucks with refugees repatriated from Juba had left Juba. When the soldiers noticed this, they ordered them to stop and turn everything around and go back to Juba.

Making a u-turn is not that easy, because the road is very bad. Nothing has been done to it during the entire rainy season and it is still one big mud puddle with very large holes between Juba and Yei . So they say. So today, Sunday, they are all still in Juba. The trucks with the refugees on them and also all the Kenyan truck drivers, who are here and who would like to go back to their own country. The end of the whole affair is that Peter van Krieken has had all the UN flags removed from the trucks (Blue in color). Many more soldiers are now coming along, with large tanks, and everyone is coming along, including the refugees, no longer under supervision of the United Nations, but at their own risk. And also all the traders, the Kenyan truck drivers, who have been here in Juba for a long time, and are waiting for an opportunity to go back. Would they really leave tomorrow, Monday ? Who knows?

Mum, I don’t know if you can follow my story a bit. It sounds quite complicated perhaps. But it’s a good solution. The people also really want to leave so they can eat . All the Ugandans and Zaireans who are now leaving Juba have actually been here for years. So there are so many thousands fewer mouths to feed. But there are still plenty of people left! The total population of Juba, including all camps, is said to be 200,000. But who can say exactly? I find it very difficult to estimate, because more and more people are arriving and now with the hunger situation, more and more people are leaving Juba for the countryside, risking their lives, because the Arabs are making short work of people who are in “enemy territory”‘, because then you are automatically an accomplice of the freedom fighters.

Do you know, mother, what a soup kitchen produces?

Two mothers receive a large iron barrel, a gasoline barrel that has been cut loose at the top. It is placed on three large boulders. Six pieces of firewood underneath (very scarce), and what do you throw in? While supplies last? One liter of cooking oil with three buckets of ground corn. Two cups of sugar and three cups of milk powder. Use a large stick to stir everything vigorously while cooking.

You fill the (petrol) barrel one-third full with water, which you first bring to the boil before you add the above. If you have some flour you can add it to the whole stuff. But flour hasn’t been seen for months. Then you can feed 300 children, just enough to keep them alive, they get a cup once a day. You can keep them at a distance with a big stick, because they swarm around the barrel like hungry wolves.

That’s it for today, dear mother and all. I ‘m doing great. Lots of love from Alfons ter Beke MHM

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