A tension-filled showdown in the middle of a market town between rebels and South Sudan’s military led to the deaths of four civilians and some 2,000 people seeking refuge with the U.N., the Associated Press informed the world Jan. 28.
The next day, Bill Andress of the Sudan Advocacy Action Forum, Trinity Sudan Ministry, contacted his sources in Juba, South Sudan, assessed the situation on the ground, then sent the email for which registered nurse Amy Smith of Rogersville was waiting. “We also notice that after such a flare up, there normally is a period of peace….There is no looting and many people have returned to their homes. …At this point we are not canceling the trip.”
So, the mission of medical mercy was on. On to Africa, to the searing outback of South Sudan, where tribal violence was simmering and sometimes boiling over and government troops were adding to the haphazard violence of bush warfare by attacking civilians linked tribally to the rebel forces. Smith was on her way to practice medicine in a small church compound on the banks of a shallow brown river in Pibor Township, a township nearly the size of South Carolina, where Presbyterian missions have been carried out for 111 years.
Now, more than ever, the people there were in need of medical attention and the trained staff to deliver it. Fleeing into the bush takes its toll on the weak and infirm, as Smith and her team would soon learn.
And for one action-packed week, the heat and the hard work of practicing medicine in the field with next to nothing would be its own hard-won blessing
When Andress and fellow mission coordinator Robert Cely of South Carolina decided to carry on, the number of volunteers up for the trip into war began to dwindle. In the end, it was themselves, nurse Charlene Lauderbaugh from Pittsburgh, Dr. Bill Burslem from Virginia and Smith, who flew into Nairobi, Kenya, to meet up, buy bulk medicine and plan logistics before heading into the hot, dusty plains of Pibor.
Why leave the relative safety of being a nurse at Mon General Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va., for a war zone?
“I trusted Bill and Bob – they’ve been with me on every mission to Sudan. They arranged the trip and kept us up to date with the reports they were getting. But really, I couldn’t wait to get back. This was my third trip and I’ve made friends.” Smith opened up the big scrapbook overflowing with photos from this latest mission. Her adventure began Feb. 13 and ended Feb. 25 at Pittsburgh Interantional Airport. What happened in between is the story that heroes get to tell once they get home.
Being a nurse helps.
Smith graduated from Waynesburg College with a degree in nursing in 1990, worked in local hospitals and delivered the end-time care for the grandparents who cared for her. With their death, she was ready to take on the world.
“When my paternal grandmother died in 2001, it left a void,” Smith said. “I was always interested in Africa, I read Roots when I was a kid. I wanted to help the less fortunate so I got on the Internet and started looking around and found Volunteers in Medical Missions Website. They were nondenominational and they matched my beliefs so I started going on missions.”
Doing medicine for poverty’s sake filled the void with hard work and wonder.
“My first trip to Zimbabwe changed my life. I was there for two weeks and when I got back I was so excited my friend Pam Clark went with me on a trip. I’ve been to Mexico three times, Tanzania two times, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Honduras. We go beyond where the tourists go. I went on my first mission to Pibor in 2010 and I fell in love with the people, especially the kids. We went back in 2011 but our trip last year kept getting cancelled because of the tribal violence.“
Roots of the tribal conflict are centuries deep but it wasn’t until the 1960s that spears and machetes were traded in for automatic weapons and what was once tribal one-upmanship between the small but fierce Merle tribe and the neighboring Dinka and Nuer tribes became bloodbaths. Peace returned, but not for long. Luckily, this time it would be long enough for Smith to do some good.
“These are the neediest people I’ve ever met but despite the circumstances they are amazingly resilient and grateful for whatever they have. They have less than nothing and after this last round of fighting they have even less. I had to go,” Smith said.
This nurse who takes her vacation days to go be a nurse – “It’s so worth it to go!” – pays her own way by socking away a portion of each paycheck. She also cheerfully accepts the donations that come her way from friends and patrons, including her church, the United Methodist Church of Rogersville.
“It costs about $3,000 and if I’m meant to go, the money shows up. This year my church gave me more than $600. I bought medical supplies with it and some church members made dresses for the girls.” Smith pointed to a photo of her hugging a shy little barefoot girl in a bright pink dress. There are other photos too. In one, Dr. Ajak, a nearly seven-foot tall Dinka tribesman, towers beside Smith. He was one of the thousands of ‘lost children’ of the wars that have plagued Sudan for more than 30 years. Orphans were driven from their homes into refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia, then were scattered around the world through relief organizations. Fortunately for Ajak, he studied hard in refugee camp schools and was sent abroad to Cuba to become a doctor, then to Canada. His medical license was not accepted so Ajak became a taxi driver.
“We found him six years ago and sent him to Kenya for a medical refresher course,” Andress said. “That’s when he got his contract to go home and work as a doctor. He’s not easy to get hold of. When we contacted him to work with us in February, he was in the bush treating patients. He’s a super asset because he knows the people and he’s familiar with the diseases. He was the real leader of the team.”
“I’m 45 and I was the youngest,” Smith said, shaking her graying curls and laughing. “The people I went with, their energy and commitment is amazing. Some people like to give me credit but someone who really deserves it is Nancy McGaughey of Indiana. She lives at the compound and runs the pharmacy. We came home after a week but she’s staying for three years as a missionary and she’s in her 60s. Now there’s a hero!”
Despite what Pibor lacks, it has the Internet. One photo shows the spindly silver legs of a communication tower rising above a mud and thatch hut on a stretch of dusty road.
Another shows the woven stick walls and dangling tarps of the “hospital” where those too sick to sit lie on pallets, hooked to IVs, waiting to be treated.
“Most of them were old and dehydrated. Some had end stage liver disease. Some had AIDS. In years past I’d have six or more inpatients waiting at the end of the day to stay over. I didn’t have any this year. We’re guessing that means that the sickest and the weakest didn’t make it out of the bush,” Smith noted soberly.
To get to Pibor, Smith flew from Pittsburgh to New York, then to Amsterdam, to Kenya and a two-hour trip in a 12-passenger Cessna from Nyrobi to Pibor. They were met by one of their best success stories – a tall woman named Adosh who hugged, then posed with Smith to have her picture taken.
“She had a fistula from a bad childbirth and it left her incontinent. The other villagers shunned her because of the smell and she was very shy. In 2010 we took her to Ethiopia to a world-class hospital and it was successful. Oh, I was thrilled to see her! Her son Mambothi is 13 and he came to the clinic every day and helped us count pills. He met Dr. Ajak and maybe someday he’ll be a doctor, too.”
The team arrived in Pibor on Feb. 16 and after church on Sunday “we heard machine gun fire. None of us panicked but we saw villagers running for their lives. We found out later that the SPLA (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army) were having a drill and I posted on Facebook so my friends wouldn’t worry if word got out.”
When Smith and her team arrived at the compound, the cement block building they used to sleep in was destroyed by war so they pitched their tents by the river, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
“We got our water from a bore hole that was drilled deep to tap the aquifer, then Robert treated it with iodine, chlorine and other chemicals.” The team subsisted on military rations, lentils and rice. Some days the temperatures climbed to 127 degrees. “The temperature dropped to 70 degrees one night and I woke up shivering,” Smith said. “We were only a mile from the town of Pibor but it was too hot to walk there. We took the jeep to town one time, and walked around, but when we saw a drunken SPLA soldier on the street ahead of us we turned around and left.”
Soldiers did come to be treated at the clinic and Smith got photos of their closed, watchful faces and rugged weapons for her scrapbook.
Now that she’s home, she can’t wait to go back. But not now. The rainy season is just around the corner.
She points to a photo of her tennis shoe, shot from above, laces deep in sticky gray mud. “It rained the night before we left and we were worried that the plane wouldn’t be able to take off. When the rainy season comes – nothing moves.”
So for now, Smith is home with a good story to tell, especially to fourth graders who might be wondering if going to school is really worth it.
“I love talking to school kids about what I’ve seen. Those kids have to work – the girls haul water and the boys herd goats.” She pointed to a photo of a little boy bent over a sewing machine, half bathed in sunlight. “He’s probably only 9 years old. They have so little and have to work so hard. When I come home I feel disoriented by all the stuff we have – and waste. It makes me mad sometimes. Give me a call and I’ll talk to your class. They’ll love my photos. Maybe one of them will grow up to go on missions, too.”