Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cycling back … to travel prep – Thoughts on war & security

Today some of our group learned of some distressing news from southern Sudan: that there has been some renewed military activity (apparently from Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army”) and some people have died. It’s reported in SudanWatch and the Sudan Tribune.

This led to some e-mail discussion among us (folks who have been, and folks who are preparing to go to Lui) about the security issues and risks. Mike+ and Anne+ had especially moving comments, which I hope they might post here.

But it got me to thinking about some aspects of my travel preparation which I glossed right over in my earlier posts on this blog – things I had already forgotten about my experience in the “preparation” phase.

I had already forgotten that – before the trip – I went to my employer’s Personnel Office and updated/double-checked all my beneficiaries.

I had already forgotten that I contacted a friend whom I knew would be the best person to adopt my cats if I did not come home. I wanted to be sure she would be willing to take on that responsibility.

I had already forgotten that I had a long talk with my sister, telling her where I kept the file detailing my burial/funeral preferences, and being sure she knew where I kept financial/legal records.

I had already forgotten that I had a major (and my first-ever) panic attack on the little plane flying into Sudan, as I realized I was putting my life into the hands of God, and of four Missourians whom I did not really know, and of the people of Lui whom I had never even seen. I had forgotten how I could not breathe, and I had forgotten the tears I hid from everyone else on that plane.

How – I now ask myself – could I possibly have forgotten all those things that loomed so large and frightening in the days before getting to Lui? But then I realized it was because very soon after arriving in Lui, a couple of things happened to me.

First, I experienced the radical hospitality of the Moru in Lui. Like everyone else, I quickly realized they were caring for us at great personal “cost” (in terms of time, effort, inconvenience, and resources) to themselves, and I somehow knew with absolute certainty that they would not put us in harm’s way. And I somehow knew that – if harm came – they would do everything possible to protect us from it. That was a most humbling experience. These people who have endured over 40 years of war and massacre in the last half-century would sacrifice themselves to protect this privileged American! “What wondrous love is this?” indeed!

Second, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I experienced that “peace which passes understanding.” Something miraculous came over me. Somehow I was able (and I still do not understand how) to relax in the knowledge that God was in control of the situation. It’s not like I exercised some great faith and trust – and it’s certainly not that I exhibited any courage. To the contrary, it’s that the fears and worry just melted away as soon as I got on the ground in Lui. I cannot explain it. But I’ve also heard the stories of the folks who visited Lui before we did, and many of theml seem to say roughly the same thing. It just happens.

Let me add a few other observations. (After all, you patient readers have already figured out that I got short-changed when God was handing out the gift of brevity!)

Tuesday morning (Feb. 28), as we were all tightly packed into the truck en route to Nideh, we suddenly saw a great brouhaha on the road ahead of us. This was most strange, for it’s common to drive for hours in Lui without seeing any other vehicle. But we could see several vehicles in the road ahead of us. One of them was barreling toward us, flagging us down, and making signs for us to stop or turn back. When we stopped, and he jumped out of his truck, he explained that the United Nations de-mining operation had detected a mine in the road ahead of us, and they were investigating it. It would be a while, so we might as well get out of our truck and relax.

This was the scene in the road ahead of us.

"Relax"?!?!?!? A part of me thought this must be the stupidest thing I had ever been counseled in my entire life! The other part – and the larger part – of me thought that was splendid advice. We did get out and stretch our legs, and enjoyed what little breeze might cool us. At some level, I was aware that we might have driven over a mine and been blown to bits. And at some level, I didn’t trust the U.N. operation and thought we might be blown to bits even if they gave us the “all-clear” sign. But mostly I was just enjoying the moment, and was at such peace that it did not matter which thing happened. That’s weird for me! I can’t explain it, but something happens in Lui. Something just happens! and I’m still trying to figure out what that is.

This was the view out our rear window. Note the guy in the heavy bomb-deflecting armor at right.

It turns out that the man who had stopped us was a South African, employed by a company the U.N. has hired to supervise these de-mining operations. As we stood there under the equatorial sun, we all got to chatting. He had come from Juba (many tens of miles to the east), and gave us information about what was happening there, in terms of the peace and the rain (or lack thereof). When he learned that Bishop Bullen was one of our group, he quickly began asking the Bishop for permission to camp in Lui when his crew made it further west. It struck me then that this was very much like the U.S. experience during the westward expansion – when news only traveled at the speed of a horse.

In Lui, there is no newspaper, no radio, no television. There are miserably few vehicles. So movement is very slow. And news is very slow. In the U.S., we have grown accustomed to news providers that give us instantaneous news of events occurring all around the globe. But it’s not like that in Lui. There, it’s a three-day walk from the far reaches of the diocese to Lui itself – a distance of maybe 50 miles. News doesn’t travel fast. But I suspect trouble doesn’t travel fast either. For me –plugged into newspaper, radio, and television – what happens 30 miles away or 1,000 miles away feels “immediate.” But in Lui, it’s very different. What happens 100 miles away there is as distant as what happens on the East or West coasts here. It’s a whole different “point of reference.” (I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of explaining this. But there you are.)

To folks worrying about the security issues in Lui, I have two more stories.

Every time we got in the LandRover to visit another parish or archdeaconry, there was one young man who got in the truck last. I never learned his name. We simply referred to him as The Young Man with the Gun. He had some big, scary-looking automatic weapon, and he was always closest to the back door, so he could get out of the truck first. (Or because that gave him the clearest “line of fire”?) We were told that he traveled with us to protect us against wild animals. Ha! There are no wild animals left in this region; they have all fled in the face of these years and years of war. I knew he was there in case of any military/rebel assault.

But here’s the funny thing. I think we all discounted that threat. We just shared water and food and shade with our Young Man with the Gun, enjoyed visiting with him. It did not feel like there was any credible threat.

That’s also borne out by how the folks in Lui let us “roam.” I’m told that previous missioners were never able to leave the Lui guest compound without escorts. But our group was allowed to walk around the area; Rick and Bob+ even made 2- and 3-mile treks. Given how “care-fully” the folks in Lui watched out for us and took care for us, I simply do not believe they would have allowed us to walk about so freely if they were not convinced we were secure.

I remember Susan Naylor telling us that on the previous group's time in Lui, they asked Bishop Bullen to change the schedule pretty radically; that night, they were kept awake by the sound of drums, which they recognized were not merely “music,” but communication. Indeed, they learned, the folks of Lui were “passing the word” from village to village that the meeting time had been changed. For all our supposed Western sophistication, we are not attuned to the subtle signs and we are not plugged into the news that the folks in Lui are connected to.

So … back to my original note in this too-long entry: Yes, there are reports of military activity and even killings somewhere in southern Sudan this week. Given that, would I still feel safe planning to go back to Lui the week after Easter? You bet! In a heartbeat!!

No comments: