John arrived at the Rainbow Centre, four years ago, in the morning, Sister Joan remembers it as if it was yesterday “I immediately sent a catechist to the market to buy John a dress, a blanket and some soap”, this Comboni missionary sister with an iron will and a sweet smile remembers. “The boy”, she adds, “ seemed disoriented and confused”.
John’s story is just one among many: a 12 year-old boy, whose brother, sisters, mother and father were killed in a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raid. It happened on 3 March, 2010, in Baite, a village close to the Congolese town of Dungu. John was spared by the rebels only because they considered him able to fight, to hold a gun and kill. For this reason, instead of beating him on the head with a stick, the LRA men tied him and took him to the forest.Starting over, despite the LRA “We try to help and to give shelter and care to former LRA child- prisoners, in several ways”, Sister Joan says, “we are aware that the return to normality is always difficult and that the wounds of the inhuman atrocities suffered by victims will stay in their minds and hearts forever”. These are the tragedies the missionary and her sisters face at the ‘Rainbow Center’.
This facility for shelter and support was created in the Nzara Diocese, in 2004. Nzara is in the extreme southwestern section of South Sudan that is bordered by the Republic of the Congo on the south and the Central African Republic to the west. The town is 15 kilometers from Yambio and from other areas where, still in November, the latest LRA raids were reported. Along with the Rainbow group’s women and dozens of volunteers, the Comboni missionaries provide meals, give medical care and… listen.
The fight against AIDS and coloured walls
The missionaries’ main activity is assisting people affected by AIDS. “The beginnings”, Sister Joan says, “were very difficult because of fear, shame, isolation, stigma. It took three or four years of meetings, talks and activities in parishes, chapels and villages to raise full awareness about the HIV problem. It took a long time to make HIV- positive people accept their reality, and to be accepted themselves by their families and communities”.
There are children, youths, adults among the 702 people assisted for free by the missionaries at the Nzara hospital, where patients are provided with antiretroviral drugs. On Thursdays and Fridays a lunch consisting of meat, beans and rice is offered at the Rainbow Centre. “An important nutritional support”, Sister Joan explains, “especially for those patients who have just started antiretroviral therapy”.
Those entering the centre can notice that special attention is given to child-patients with HIV. There is a room with walls painted in yellow, pink, green and blue. The drawings on the walls represent a rainbow and the sun with a smile on its face. Here the young patients can draw. “We are currently offering breakfast and lunch to 94 children, who are also involved in daily educational and recreational activities: all of them have problems related to HIV”, Sister Joan says.
The Rainbow Center is also involved in other initiatives. The centre offers financial support to help pay tuition fees for about 400 children, the most of whom are orphans. Over the past three or four years, assisting LRA victims has become increasingly important. “We have helped a dozen children and several young girls to recover and integrate back into normality after they have experienced rebels’ raids in this area”, Sister Joan adds. “It is a difficult path”, she explains, “because the violence they have suffered makes victims aggressive and scared at the same time”. According to the Comboni missionaries, “Only patience, dialogue, sharing, acceptance and love can help these unfortunate kids to recover”. Nyeko is one of them. The South Sudanese soldiers took him to the Rainbow Center when he was just one year old. He was naked and in need of everything. He had survived fire clashes between the army and rebels in northern Uganda. His parents had been likely kidnapped or perhaps had escaped and vanished into the air. “Nyeko”, Sister Joan remembers, “gave us his smile as a gift. I remember his never ending hunger not only for food but for love. He gave us strength and courage to continue our fight for peace”. (V.G.)