Children of War

Photo by Christena Dowsett
Photo by Christena Dowsett

I woke up last Saturday morning in my 72 degree house, safe in my cozy bed. Birds chirping outside my window and thoughts of doing yard work today on this peaceful Saturday.

Little did I know, at that very moment, gunfire was erupting in a town in South Sudan. Bodies were strewn in the streets and families were running for their lives to the bush.

But God knew, and He redirected my thoughts. I had fallen asleep the night before reading an intense book about World War II. My pleasant early-morning meditations were interrupted by images of the horrors people suffer in war—especially children, who don’t understand what’s happening around them. All they know is that their parents are scared, chaos surrounds them, and “home” is wherever they can find a place to curl up and sleep that night.

These images haunted me as I got up to pour a cup of coffee. As a mom, I have such a strong instinct to protect my children. My heart aches for moms who are unable to keep their children safe. And it’s happening to millions of children around the world today.

Working at World Concern, I have to be mindful not to become anesthetized to the circumstances I hear about every day. A mother scooping up her child and fleeing gunfire in terror. Waking up the next day on the hard ground, enveloped in sweltering heat to hear her child crying because of hunger pains. Panic when she realizes the child is not just hungry, but sick with fever.

I can’t ever let this become “normal” to me.

14-year-old Mary waits for a hole in the ground to fill with muddy water so she can fill her water can.
14-year-old Mary waits for a hole in the ground to fill with muddy water so she can fill her water can.

I took a sip of my coffee and thought of the people in South Sudan whose tragic circumstances seem to get worse each day. A colleague who had recently returned from a visit told me he saw children picking leaves off of trees to eat to quell the hunger pains. I felt sick. He showed me a video he’d shot on his iPhone of a 14-year-old girl scooping scum-covered water from a hole in the ground, bees swirling around her head as she waited for the hole to fill up again.

“Sometimes I wait several hours for enough water to fill the hole again so I can scoop more,” she told him.

The water Mary collects each day is filthy.
The water Mary collects each day is filthy.

I pondered this as I sipped my cream-sweetened coffee, which suddenly tasted extraordinarily decadent.

And then I pick up my phone to see an email that our team was evacuated as violence erupted in Wau town, the base for several new villages in our One Village Transformed program. I prayed for the hundreds of families who lost loved ones in the fighting and for those who had fled in terror.

Earlier this month, I had barely noticed the automatic withdrawal from my checking account. $33. That’s my humble gift each month to that 14-year-old girl’s village outside of Wau.

It’s not much. I spent about that on a new shower curtain liner and cat litter at Fred Meyer yesterday.

Photo by Christena Dowsett
Photo by Christena Dowsett

But I felt a twinge of relief when I thought about that gift this morning. God reminded me I was doing something. That $33, combined with yours and someone else’s and others, is enough to do some amazing things in this one village. Not just a meal far better than leaves for today, but empowerment for the parents in her village to plant colorful, vibrant vegetable gardens that will supply many nutritious meals. It will help them dig a well where she can collect cool, fresh, disease-free water every day—without having to wait for a mud puddle to fill up. It will enable her to attend school, learn to read and write. And she’ll be introduced to a group of neighbors who meet twice a week under the shade of a giant tree to sing worship songs and study the Bible in her native language, allowing this child of war to experience peace in the midst of turmoil.

Village prayer. Photo by Christena Dowsett.
Village prayer. Photo by Christena Dowsett.

She will see her neighbors working and starting small businesses and thinking about the future, and it will all be new and different and hope-filled. She will begin to see the possibility for a better life and focus beyond waiting for the water hole to fill or picking leaves from a tree to eat.

I’ll never miss that $33 from my checking account each month. But it will mean a child of war is fed and cared for and a village in South Sudan is transformed.

You’ll Never Say These Two Words Again

“I’m starving.”

You’ll hear this idiom more than anything else at my house. But I heard something this week that has convicted me of many things; most notably the way we speak.

But first let me assure you, I do feed my children … and they’re not starving.

I’m sure if they think hard enough, they’ll remember that they ate today. Many times. Their bellies are full, their eyes are bright and they’re able to move … not crippled over in pain from not having food in days … or weeks. They aren’t drinking fetid water from a hole in the ground that’s teeming with insects. Or pulling dry leaves from a nearby tree to stay alive.

No, they aren’t starving.

“You want to know how sick and hungry we are? Then let me show you the tombs of my two children.”

I quite literally gasped when I heard this.

My hand then covered my mouth … I felt sick … I couldn’t speak … tears filled my eyes.

The dad that uttered these horrifying words lives in a South Sudanese village. His name is Martin, and he has such a grieved stare in his eyes that I could barely stand to look at. His children were hungry. And he’d lost them because of it.

MartinNyiloang

And when I think of these little ones … their tiny graves … and this father’s despair … I can’t help but feel completely distressed about it. And so I should.

I could have kept his children alive. But if only I knew …

If you’ve read this far I now have to tell you the rest of this story—his village is full of hungry children.

After wrestling with the guilt that I probably threw away enough food to have kept this man’s children alive, I realized something greater. That I owe him so much more than just my feelings.

I have to tell his story … and honor his children.

South Sudan is a mess right now. A young country that should still be bathing in the celebration of independence is instead caught in a web of raging violence … economic disaster … and dire food shortages. Poverty is tightening its grip and the poorest people can barely breathe.

But there is always hope.

As I respond to the wretched hunger and unfolding crisis in South Sudan, part of me yearns to share this father’s story with my own kids.

Especially the next time they tell me they’re starving.

Help to Injured Civilians in Sri Lanka War

Right now, World Concern’s Sri Lanka staff is helping many civilians injured during recent attacks. World Concern is one of only a few humanitarian relief agencies permitted by the government to help. We’re providing food, bedding, clothing and personal supplies to both the wounded and the weary aid workers.

It appears to be the last deadly throes of a long civil war. The ethnic minority that has been fighting for autonomy has been cornered. Regardless of your perspective, innocent families are paying with the lives of their loved ones because of this war.

World Concern provides essential supplies and food for people injured during the Sri Lanka civil war.
World Concern provides essential supplies and food for people injured during the Sri Lanka civil war.

You can read more about what we’re doing and donate to help. We need money for our response!

Below is perspective on the crisis, written by World Concern Sri Lanka County Director Ian McInnes:

Sri Lanka’s three decade old conflict between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lankan Government is at its fiercest. 70,000 have already lost their lives in a separatist struggle for control of ‘Eelam’, a self-designated homeland for Tamils by the LTTE. Having lost control of the East of the island in 2007 the LTTE now faces a fight for survival in an ever decreasing space in the North.

The safety of an estimated quarter of a million civilians trapped within this conflict zone is of grave concern to humanitarian organizations.

These Tamil families have been on the move now for months, continually retreating as air strikes, artillery fire and ground battles rage around them on three boarders to the North, West and South. Their retreat to the North Eastern corner of the Island has them pressed hard up against the Eastern coast with nowhere further to run.

Continual pleas by humanitarian agencies have resulted in the establishment of ‘safe zones’ within the war zone, but civilians face real danger trying to get into these zones, or indeed trying to flee the North for the Government controlled areas in the South of the Island. The LTTE have blocked their movement holding the population back for political legitimacy and as a recruitment pool as they lose fighters on the front lines.

Meanwhile the constricted fighting space is resulting in mounting civilian casualties. On 3rd February a crowded hospital was shelled three times killing 52 civilians and injuring many more according to ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). Both sides deny shelling the hospital. Sadly these tragedies are becoming all too frequent.

With a ground victory appearing imminent and geo-political conditions favoring the Sri Lankan government – India broadly support the defeat of the LTTE with Sonia Gandhi having lost her husband to an LTTE suicide bomber; the US under the Bush Administration offered technical support to the Sri Lankan security forces and was the first to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organization – the Government are eager to eliminate the LTTE.

However this war is costly both in economic terms at $1.6 billion annually and in lives with scores of government solders dying daily (an independent body count organization, the Foundation for Coexistence, puts the collective death toll in the north at 3,200 for December and January alone).

More than 70,000 people have died during Sri Lanka's civil war. World Concern is helping with food and essential supplies for the wounded.
More than 70,000 people have died during Sri Lanka's civil war. World Concern is helping with food and essential supplies for the wounded.

In order to maintain political support for the war the Government has suppressed its own casualty numbers and is eager to control the message both within Sri Lanka and abroad. Maintaining staunch nationalist support for the military has meant a steady erosion of free speech, credible reporting, and the suppression of discussion of any other solution to this conflict other than the current military one.

Dozens of reporters have been killed in the last year, including a bold assassination of a senior editor in broad daylight on 8th January. Sri Lanka ranks 141 out of 165 countries for press freedom by Reporters without Borders (http://www.rsf.org) having slipped from 51st place in 2002. To put that in perspective Sri Lanka now ranks just beneath Zimbabwe and Sudan and just above the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

This is making the work of Humanitarian agencies all the harder as it seeks a non-violent solution for those trapped by the fighting.

It is now simply a matter of time before civilians either flee en masse – around 100 a day are managing to escape now – or face a bloody battle in much closer quarters as the Government try to eliminate the remaining LTTE from their midst.