Torrential rain, strong winds and African time combined to delay our flight to Rabkona. It was utter chaos at the Juba International Airport; luggage check, boarding passes and security check all congregating in one tight area. We boarded a WFP/UN Humanitarian Airways to Malakal where we disembarked for refueling. Hot sultry air greeted us, the terrain was dry and parched.
By the time we reached Rabkona we were at least an hour and a half late. There was no airport just a dirt runway. While all other passengers sped away into the dusty landscape we were left like orphans, Jumo our driver was too preoccupied with his phone call to acknowledge us.
Bentiu is just ten minutes ride, tukuls, conical houses made of sticks, straw and mud lined the roads fenced in by reeds. Here and there were abandoned bombed-out rusty buses, vans, trucks and cars devoid of tires, uncertain if they were legacies of the civil war. The landscape was parched with shriveled brown grass, cracked earth, dry dusty red dirt interspersed with indigenous green acacia trees. Gallant attempts to grow trees along the main dirt road could be seen. Cattle and goats seemed to be able to forage for food in the meager slim picking afforded by nature in this dry land. Tired long-suffering donkeys pulled heavy water tanks on carts, longing for the rest or food at the end of the work day. This is the end of a five-month long dry season, the rainy season starts next month and we were told that the flooded roads will soon become impassable because of the clayey soil and the whole landscape will be transformed into a green "paradise".
We met with James Kuok, the project director here who briefed us on the health center in Baow where we would work and then onto Mirmir the following week for mobile clinic. It was imperative to meet with the director of the Ministry of Health, and Michael Kuong, the country Health Director or Koch came with us. We paid a quick visit to Bentiu district Hospital. The new tarmac road stopped abruptly after we passed the hospital. I requested to see the pediatric ward which was filled with patients spilling out to the porch at the entrance, beds with two to three babies and their mothers, most suffered from complications of malaria. There was a neonate with sepsis languishing in a corner with an intravenous line, lying beside her mother, she would be in a neonatal ICU in the US. There were a few cases of kala-azar or visceral leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by the sand fly this being a referral hospital that has the medications to treat this potentially fatal disease if left untreated. The patients showed signs of malnutrition, light hair, skeleton limbs and big pot bellies. The debilitating crowding and wilting heat was made worse by the enormous swarms of flies settling everywhere, floors, beds, walls, patients... There were no screens on the windows, no fans and no mosquito nets. The patients’ families provided sheets and nets. By custom we also met with the medical director of the hospital to get his goodwill when we have to refer patients to this hospital. Outside the fence were three abandoned buildings which were to be the new nursing school but lack of funding stopped it from functioning.
South Sudan has a population of 8.2 million with slightly over half living under poverty level. It has a child mortality of 105 in 1,000 births and maternity mortality is 2054 per 100,000 births. After over two decades of war, refugees are returning to South Sudan. The Office of Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) reported that for one week in April over 6,000 refugees headed towards their final destination, over 9,000 arrived at their final destination and another 21,000 were stranded in transit unable to reach their homes. Jonglei State is still volatile with its most recent cattle raiding in February leaving thousands of people affected and 85 reported dead and 33 missing.
In the evening I took a walk into the village behind the World Relief Office. A warm breeze picked up, villagers greeted and waved. The lazy hazy sun was slowing setting. Here in Unity the two major tribes are the Nuer and the Dinka. I met two tall Nuer boys wanting to have their picture taken but they told me that the Dinkas are taller, “like mosquitoes” they said. I believe them for I have seen them in Juba, their legs seem to grow from their waistline. If I find them I will make sure to stand next to them.