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The Lone Fighter: Saving Lives Along The Border Of Sudan And South Sudan

Along the mountainous border between Sudan and the now independent country of South Sudan, a German health worker continues to treat members of the local Nuba population, even as Russian-made Antonov planes litter the war zone with bombs.

Raphael Veicht (Cap Anamur)
Raphael Veicht (Cap Anamur)
Johannes Dieterich

LEWERE -- Some people wash the car when they know they're going to be driving guests around. Raphael Veicht, 30, has done just the opposite, carefully smearing as much dirt as possible all over his Landcruiser. "You'll see why," says the corpulent German health worker with the Bavarian accent as he squeezes in behind the wheel.

It's noon, just 10 degrees north of the Equator, and unbearably hot. Ahead, we face a nearly 300-km drive in the Sudanese Nuba Mountains. It's going to take a good 10 hours. Even more dangerous than the rollercoaster terrain is what rains down from the sky, or more specifically, from Russian-made Antonov planes that pepper the ground with random bombs.

To make sure we're not spotted from the air, Veicht does not put his trust entirely in the camouflaging clay dirt he's wiped all over the car. He leaves the window open so we can hear approaching planes in time. About two hours into the drive, we hear the rumble of aircraft, and Veicht immediately swings over and brings the four-wheel drive vehicle to a halt under a mango tree. We wait. Smoke clouds tell us that the bombs fell several kilometers to the north.

Veicht, who works for the German aid organization Cap Anamur, is apparently unaffected by the incident. Then again, anybody who has been living in the Nuba Mountains for the last three years is used to bombs.

This is a war zone. The territory is in Sudan, but considers itself part of what is now the separate country of South Sudan. The stretch between the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan and the Nuba capital, Kauda, is the only way still open to get to the Cap Anamur hospital in Lewere now that all the airline companies have stopped flying there.

The front is a few kilometers north of the road. If the troops of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – who has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court – make it through to this bumpy artery, Veicht will be totally cut off from the outside world. The aid worker is one of a handful of white people who have not left the Nuba Mountains. "If I'm needed anywhere," he says, "it's here."

Bodies full of bullets and shrapnel

The feeling of really being needed was not something Veicht had felt for a long time at Munich's Grosshadern university hospital. For seven years, he trained there as a health worker, specializing in several different areas of medicine. "They do a lot of things there just because they know how to, not because the procedures are necessary or humane. That turned me off," he says. Then a colleague who worked for an aid organization told Veicht about South Sudan. He found he couldn't stop thinking about it.

It's nearly midnight by the time the Landcruiser pulls up to the hospital in Lewere. As he climbs out of the vehicle, Veicht says that one thing he'll never understand is how rally drivers can possibly be having fun. We head for some huts near the hospital. They have neither electricity nor running water – nor are there any occupants presently, besides Veicht, because no food is available: supplies were cut off when the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) confiscated all the trucks that were used to transport them. "It doesn't matter," says Veicht, as he prepares tea from a single remaining, dusty tea bag. "I'm too fat anyway."

The next morning, he's up by eight. Several dozen patients are standing in front of the hospital: children with malaria, women in the advanced stages of pregnancy, men with bullet wounds. Veicht bandages people, hands out Plumpy'nut paste to undernourished toddlers, gives anti-depressives to women traumatized by the fighting. He uses his rudimentary knowledge of one of the Nuba dialects to communicate.

The hospital, built by Cap Anamur 14 years ago, is one of just two that presently remain open for some 400,000 Nuba inhabitants. The clinic has a dispensary where supplies of malaria medication and antibiotics are getting tight. It also has an intensive care unit and a small operating theater where Veicht, if absolutely necessary, also wields the scalpel.

Veicht says the worst cases involve children who have either been hit by ammunition or poisoned by the "treatments' of local medicine men. He's also concerned by the men lying in the ward right next to the entrance: SPLA fighters, their bodies full of bomb fragments or bullets.

Grateful for a bag of tea

In the Nuba Mountains, neutrality is a foreign concept. Veicht is certain his hospital is on the right side of things. The African Nuba have been fighting for independence from the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum for decades. To them, government representatives are either arrogant Suits or gruesome war lords. A year ago, when South Sudan won its independence after years of fighting, the Nuba got the short-end of the straw once again: their location was just a bit too far north to be allocated to South Sudan. "How could you not be moved by the fate of these people?" Veicht asks. "They are also the nicest people it has ever been my experience to know."

So he stays here. Whenever they hear the Antonovs, Veicht, the local staffers and patients all run for cover together, and in the evening he shares a meal with a family, eating the same slimy okra pap with a sorghum brew and improving his Nuba vocabulary.

Back home in Grafenau (Bavaria), nobody really knows what Raphael is doing out there in Africa. He tells his mother as little as possible, so as not to worry her. His girlfriend found him so changed on his few visits back that she broke off the relationship. Veicht says it's true that he's changed. He's become more serious, has learned how to be grateful for a tea bag, and cannot believe the frivolity of many of the topics that sometimes monopolize German public and media attention.

His relationship to his old life has become nearly as difficult to navigate as the windy mountain to Lewere, where attacks by government soldiers have become more and more frequent. On the way back down, we notice that the place under the mango tree where Veicht stopped the car to avoid the Antonovs is now piled up with bodies. A battle for the provincial city of Talodi has also started, and artillery rounds can be heard at the hospital far into the night. That and the nearly uninterrupted circling of the Antonovs in the sky.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Cap Anamur

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