RUMBEK, LAKES STATE, SOUTH SUDAN
— Daily life in South Sudan is a struggle for most.
But for the countless number of people disabled during decades of war and neglect, the options are slim to none. They are often voiceless and left to rot at home, shunned by the community and helpless in a country where the most basic of services are unavailable.
The International Committee of the Red Cross hopes that an amputee center, though, will give thousands in the worst-hit northern states a new lease on life.
At a dusty workshop behind Rumbek’s main health facility, a small team is dusting off case files of more than 2,200 amputee patients from South Sudan’s four northern states. They registered soon after a peace deal in 2005 ended five decades of civil war, but most are still waiting for a prosthetic limb.
A U.S. Agency for International Development-funded medical charity gave an amputee center to the government in 2009. But it fell to waste as there were no adequate resources to keep it running.
South Sudan split from the north in 2011, but the grossly underdeveloped country has yet to provide its war-weary population with “the fruits of peace” such as clean water, basic education and healthcare.
William Luk Majak, who lost his leg to a gunshot wound in 1985 when fighting came to Rumbek, laments the lack of services for the disabled, but said the government’s hands are tied while peace with Sudan remains elusive.
“Although we are independent, there is still the demarcation of the border, plus other issues, even the shutting down of the oil has actually made services to be rendered, even within the government itself, it’s difficult," said Majak. "So, even services for the disabled, like running this workshop for repair purposes, is difficult.”
Some patients waited years for the amputee center to restart and struggled with old prostheses or on crutches, Rumbek, South Sudan, February 2013. (H. McNeish/VOA)
Grand development plans had to be shelved last year after South Sudan shut down oil production in a dispute with Sudan. Oil production accounts for almost 98% of its revenue and almost everything was on hold.
But now the International Committee of the Red Cross is working to expand services outside its Juba amputee center. ICRC’s chief prosthetic specialist, Gerald Fitzpatrick, said they are undertaking the mammoth task of trying to track down those who requested a new limb years ago. They also are helping others trapped in rural areas and the newly injured.
“It’s important for them to have a better quality of life. One thing that most people don’t realize, is if you’re an amputee and use crutches, it takes a lot more energy to walk from point A to point B than an able-bodied person. So it’s quality of life and mobility.
It’s our role here at ICRC to make the lives of the physically challenged better,” he said.
Being more mobile means everything to 35-year-old Mary Pech Bak who was bitten by a snake in 1991 and had her leg amputated in the bush. She said she is lucky because her prosthesis means that she can earn a living as a cleaner, unlike others who don't have one.
“They suffer. They cannot get a car to go anywhere. They cannot get a bicycle, even they cannot eat well. They are nothing," she said.
Marginalizing the disabled
Manyang Ader joined the rebel movement when it began in the 1960s. He survived the war unscathed, but lost his leg to a buffalo while hunting. He said that before his prosthesis, his life was extremely difficult.
“When I had no limb,” he said, “I used to go and defecate just to a near place and people would look at me. I couldn’t get around and I wouldn’t be able to do any kind of job. I just crawled around and didn’t bring anything to the family.”
John Maker is an awareness advisor with the Sudan Disabled Rehabilitation and Development Agency [SDRDA]. He said the disabled are marginalized at every level of society and many simply cannot cope.
“They are the last disabled in the world, because most of the disabled are illiterate, they are not educated. They don’t know their rights even. They don’t have a voice to raise their concerns in the community, whether in the public participation, whether in the family
participation. Some of them end up doing suicide. They kill themselves, as they are not considered in the family, in the community,” said Maker.
Since opening 10 years ago, SDRDA's mission has been to help those that, until now, no one else would.