She carefully steps off the MAF caravan in Yida, South Sudan and onto the red soil. There are so many emotions wrapped up in these few small steps. She picks up a handful of dirt and takes in the moment. It is as if her whole being is focused on this handful of red soil. Pilot Chris Ball watches it all, knowing that this is a beautiful moment in Mende’s tragic life. She is home. She is breathing in the air; she is experiencing the intense heat, and she is holding a handful of dirt – things she hasn’t done since they abducted her in war at just 12 years of age.
It was the peak of the Sudan Civil War in the 1990s. Mende Nazer hadn’t even reached her teenage years yet when her village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan was attacked and raided in war. She was abducted, raped and enslaved and remained a slave under very harsh conditions in Khartoum for almost seven years. She was overworked, horribly mistreated, and violently beaten. Soon after, she became physically ill as she grieved the loss of her innocent childhood, as she missed her parents and family and community.
Eventually she was smuggled into the UK as a slave to work for a family serving in the Sudan Embassy in London, England. With limited English and a traumatised adolescence, she didn’t dare imagine a life of freedom. But after sometime, she was given the chance to do a few errands for the family. While out doing a bit of shopping, she met a man who spoke Arabic and he told her that if she could escape her captors while in England, she would be free. She gathered up the courage and was able to run away from her life of slavery. Mende found freedom and is now a British citizen. She runs her own foundation, is an ambassador for the people of Nuba Mountains and an advocate for those still in slavery. Mende is just one of the many Sudanese and South Sudanese people who have suffered because of conflict and civil unrest.
Today, Mende is relying on a MAF flight to return home. She is travelling with Baroness Caroline Cox. Their purpose is to provide aid and advocacy to ease suffering in Sudan and South Sudan. Besides supporting Mende’s coming home, the team is collecting further research to fuel their advocacy work in the UK. The group fly with MAF from Juba to Yida, travel to Nuba Mountains in Sudan by road, and then return to Yida to fly with MAF onto Wau and back to Juba again. These passengers are truly depending on MAF to safely transport them back and forth across the country.
Baroness Caroline Cox is no stranger to these war-torn villages. She has visited these areas of conflict frequently, each time to bring global awareness to the suffering of the people in horrific situations. Caroline introduces herself as “a nurse and a social scientist by intention, baroness by astonishment.” She continues, “When I was appointed to the British House of Lords, I accepted it as a gift from God. I don’t like politics. But I consider it a great privilege, so how do I use it? The message came clearly that I am to be a voice for those that don’t have a voice, whose voices can’t be heard. So I use my time going to places where the big aid organizations don’t go to for political or security reasons. We are working with local partners in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan and also in South Sudan. We have been here many times during the previous war, the needs here are still enormous.”
Caroline is passionate about bringing awareness and aid to this legacy of destruction and devastation. “Up in the Nuba Mountains the situation is very tragic. Though there is meant to be a ceasefire, the government of Sudan regularly breaks the cease fire. Khartoum is still shelling innocent civilians, flying Antonov airplanes overhead and bombing schools, markets, and clinics.”
Because of the tragedy of this war, thousands had fled to live in caves or on mountain sides. On this visit, Caroline and her team hiked up the mountain to assess the situation; she described the peoples’ living conditions as horrendous. The people must travel two to three hours down and back up the mountain simply to fetch water for drinking and washing. It is very difficult to access food or medical care. They met a young lady who had been bitten by a cobra, she miraculously survived with only traditional medicine.
Caroline shares, “What is taking place in the Nuba Mountains is really a form of genocide. President al-Bashir, the government of Sudan, says he wants to turn the Republic of Sudan into a unified Arabic Islamic nation, so he is carrying out ethnic cleansing of the indigenous African people. He is also doing religious cleansing of Christians, traditional believers and those Muslims who do not support his Islamist ideology. This is something the international community really should be doing more to help. The international community has a duty to provide for and to protect those in the Nuba Mountains and also in Blue Nile State where the people are also suffering from military offensives by the Government of Sudan.”
In Yida, there are many refugees who have fled from the Nuba Mountains. Caroline says “The past three generations have not had access to education because of the air bombardments. This is tragic.” The team was also able to film a demonstration of Nuba Mountain music and traditional dancing. Despite their exile, the Nuba Mountain people have been able to keep their culture alive. “We wanted to get a recording of that,” explains Caroline, “to show what Nuba culture can be and should be. And we want to celebrate and showcase their traditional life in contrast to how they are forced to live now. We also wanted to show that, however much they suffer, they still treasure and preserve their traditional culture — the Government in Khartoum cannot destroy that!”
Rev. David Thomas who has accompanied Caroline on many visits to these areas, reflects on his visit here. “The time has been very good. The highlight for me in Wau was to connect with our longtime partner Bishop Moses Deng, the Anglican Bishop of Wau. Bishop Deng is doing so much for the church, education, development and health care for IDPS and refuges. He doesn’t depend on bringing in trained personnel; he focuses on training locals from South Sudan to help. In Nuba, the highlight was bringing Mende Nazer back to her country. I know it was a wonderful experience for her to return home. We will continue to support the work, focusing on the thousands of slaves who have disappeared and still not returned nor found freedom.”
It thrilled Mende to return to her homeland. Though she sadly could not return to her actual home and see her mother and father due to continued conflict in her particular village, she could reconnect with many friends and extended family members in the Nuba Mountains. She could also carry up a large amount of medicines and other necessities on the MAF flight to send onto her family in her childhood village. In a soft voice, she quietly shared her heart, “It was so good to be home, it was happy and sad and so very good.”
David explains why MAF is so vital to their work. “With the vast distances in South Sudan our work is impossible without being able to charter a MAF plane. We could not cover the geographical distance necessary; we could not do the research here in South Sudan and the advocacy work back in the UK unless we had MAF. MAF helps us span the difference.” Caroline adds her heartfelt gratitude, “Thank you to MAF for making this trip possible.”
It has been an honour for MAF to fly Mende Nazer, Baroness Caroline Cox and the team throughout South Sudan. We are privileged to partner with them as they serve on the ground in war-torn areas and do advocacy work in the UK and elsewhere for the people of Sudan and South Sudan.