When Sister Rosa Le Thi Bong came to Riimenze in 2008, there wasn’t much there.
“There was a house that had been built by the Comboni Sisters, but it had been abandoned for 50 years. There was nothing inside. There was no phone, no internet, no car, no power, and not enough water. We had an electric generator for the night time, but it was so noisy we often turned it off to enjoy the night with just a candle,” she said.
What did exist in Riimenze was a population that had suffered during the long civil war, and which had yet to benefit in any way from the 2005 peace agreement and the soon to come move to independence.
Sister Rosa came to Western Equatoria State with four other members of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions. Working under the auspices of what was then called Solidarity with Southern Sudan, two members of the team stayed in nearby Yambio to begin a teacher training college.
Sister Rosa, who is Vietnamese, and two others went to Riimenze. Sister Joana Mai Hla Kyi from Myanmar was to work in health. Sister Josephine Murugi from Kenya planned to work with children and education.
Sister Rosa came to help people better utilize the land to grow food.
“When we arrived, it was the rainy season and people were starving. They had spent so many years on the run in the middle of war that they had lost the skills they needed to farm,” she said.
“What food they had was largely imported from Uganda, Kenya, or the north of Sudan. We got some food for them and we started working with them on planting. They didn’t know how to maximize the use of the land. They had forgotten how to farm. Hardly any children went to school, and there were very few bicycles. Most people were footing everywhere.”
Rosa set about learning Azande, the local language, at the same time she struggled to improve her English, the language of the growing Solidarity community.
“If you learn the language of the people they will feel like you are part of their life. Whatever you do, they’ll know you love them,” she said.
Fighting in the area complicated things. At first it was the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan militia group operating out of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2009, Sister Rosa and the others were evacuated to Yambio for two weeks because of LRA attacks in the area. Local men formed a militia, the Arrow Boys, to protect the village.
“It was my first experience of fear,” Sister Rosa said.
It wasn’t her last. As rebel groups came and went in the region, and government soldiers turned to rape and pillage in lieu of a paycheck, several times Sister Rosa and her colleagues had to face down killers.
“Yet every time God gave us enough strength to get through the crisis,” she said.
Being part of the Solidarity community also kept her going.
“It was important that we were together and supported each other. God was always with us. God sent us here and God knew what we needed. I felt fear, of course, when facing the guns pointed at us, but the people suffered more than us. Their families were tortured and killed, but they still trusted in God. They are saints. They have been through so much suffering. They are martyrs.”
Accompaniment was at the heart of Solidarity’s presence.
“Being with the people was the center of our witness. When they ran to the bush, when they ran to the camp for displaced people, they saw that we didn’t run away, that we stayed there with them,” Sister Rosa said. “Although we tried to assist them and comfort and advise them, our witness was being with them through all the crises.”
Story and photos by Paul Jeffrey. Video by Sean Hawkey.
Featured photo (top): Sister Rosa walks through the farm in Riimenze. She left South Sudan in late 2021.