Eyewitness to Horror
Editor's note: Ellen Ratner wrote this op-ed for Fox News Opinion while working for a week in December with Christian Solidarity International as a volunteer in Southern Sudan.
In the mental health field there is a term used by professionals called “word salad." It refers to the seemingly rambling and incoherent words spoken by a person who is psychotic and makes no sense; the words seem strung together or mixed up, like they are in a salad.
When I was in Africa in December I began to understand “word salad” better than I ever had before because I was experiencing what I now feel can be called nothing less than “brain salad. ”
I had just visited the border of Darfur and Southern Sudan, where in the lead up to Southern Sudan’s referendum for Independence the Khartoum government had dropped bombs and destroyed homes injuring, killing and terrifying the population.
I walked across the bridge the separates South Sudan from Darfur and picked up bomb pieces from the craters left by the Russian-made Antonov bombers.
I saw an entire abandoned village. -- Until November this village was self-sustaining, helped in part by the bounty of a beautiful river filled with small silvery fish. The river looked liked those picture books where Moses was set sail by his mother. Indeed, the river feeds into the Nile.
I saw that people had left the village in fear of more bombs and had become what is known as IDPs ( Internally Displaced Persons).
My mind flashed to the photos we took walking across the bridge, in a foxhole with the Southern Sudanese commander, the holes left by the bombs.
I have known the plight of the Sudanese for the past several years. The aid group Christian Solidarity International has taken me on their many slave liberation trips.
These are people who were taken to the North during the war and used in the many horrific ways that slaves are used.
I have seen a lot on my trips here during the last three years. I have seen abject poverty ( people who live on a dollar a day) as slaves and villagers. I have seen people who lost limbs and eyes due to beatings, women who have lost children and people who have seen relatives killed in front of them.
I was totally unprepared, however, for what I saw as we drove into the IDP camp. Here were people living in the open, on blankets with no shelter. We began to talk to the women who were holding children. They had walked five days from the bombed community by the bridge. Many had nothing with them except their children. They did not have a pot, they had no food, and many did not even have a blanket. They were within days of starvation.
Survival in such a state is only possible for a short period of time by eating leaves on the trees and there were well over 1,500 people in this one camp alone. The World Food Program will give some emergency food, but it will take weeks, according to an on-the-spot aid worker, for the food aid to reach those in desperate need.
The fledgling government of Southern Sudan is overwhelmed. Every day Black Christians and traditionalists are coming in droves to the South -- thousands of people are arriving in the area with literally nothing. It is expected that 50,000 people will arrive in the next few weeks. They come for two reasons:
In January they will have a chance to vote for independence from the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. They also face an upsurge of religious and racial bigotry in the North. South Sudan cannot cope with the looming humanitarian catastrophe.
One woman, Achol Deng Kuot, had been captured during the war as a young girl and sent to the North. She had been beaten regularly by her Arab master and used by others. Now she had five children and no husband. Her shelter was a few grasses and no mat. She did not have a pot, food, or anything other than what she was wearing. Her baby had a clear infection on his face, and facing starvation herself, she had no milk to give him.
Confronted for the first time in my life with this kind of close-at-hand starvation, I began to think of the Holocaust and the conditions at the camps as they were liberated. The American GIs did what they could , but many of the men and women died even after liberation including my cousin Ida, who died on her way to the hospital with Typhoid.
I thought of how the world turned its back as the ship St. Louis was turned away from America full of refugees. I thought about how the world is turning its back right now to this crises.
I thought of how I had dinner awaiting me when I got back from the clinic where we are sleeping in tents.
I thought of what we could do without causing a riot in the IDP camp, my plane ride home and yes, I am ashamed to say I even thought of my holiday shopping list.
I thought of “shopping palaces” people will go to while, without intervention, the people I just saw will be dead by Christmas.
My brain was beginning to be like “word salad.” I could not sort it out. And twelve hours later I still can’t make sense of what I saw. I can’t make sense of being totally helpless in the face of this mass starvation.
The folks at Christian Solidarity International are trying to turn on a dime with very little money to get help to these people today and tomorrow. But, they too have very little resources.
"Brain salad" is how my brain processes what I have seen and heard. It makes no sense. I can’t put my mind around this together with my understanding of the world.
I am hoping that my brain doesn’t begin to get what is called “psychic numbing” where I cut off and don’t respond and don’t care. I can’t understand the situation. I can only share the experience with you, the reader, and hope that someone will give money, or time or something to help. That all of us can put aside our daily lives, buy one less thing at the after-Christmas sales and give of ourselves to help “the least of these” in Sudan.
Ellen Ratner is Washington bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service and a Fox News contributor.