Interview with MSF field coordinator Karel Janssens

(Click to view a transcript of the interview.)

Pibor, South Sudan, 23 January 2012

My name is Karel Janssens, I’m the field coordinator for MSF in Pibor.

Here in Pibor county, MSF is providing healthcare in three health structures, three clinics, one in Pibor
town, one in Lekwongole, and one in Gumruk. And those three facilities together provide the only
access to healthcare for the 160,000 people who are living in Pibor county.

Our team here in Pibor was evacuated on 23 December when we knew about an imminent attack on
Lekwongole and Pibor, and on Christmas Day Lekwongole was attacked and a couple of days later Pibor
was attacked as well.

On 7 January the MSF team returned to Pibor and started medical activities again. I myself a couple of
days later went to Lekwongole, that was 13 January, and found our clinic in the middle of Lekwongole
town completely burnt out, the walls and the roof are still there, but all the rest of the clinic has been
burnt, thrown out of the clinic, it’s a total mess. And Lekwongole town is a ghost town, it’s completely
burnt to the ground, not a single tukul, not a single hut that is still standing. Stray dogs, some birds,
some individuals wandering through that sinister landscape.

We decided to go back basically three days ago with a medical team, and so for the past three days we
have been doing medical consultations for the people that are remaining around Lekwongole, because
the people don’t dare yet to go back to Lekwongole town, to stay there, also because there is nothing
anymore left, but also because they are just afraid of other attacks. People come from the surrounding
bush for some food that they hope to get at the airstrip, and also now, since the three days that we are
back there, for medical consultations.

One of our major constraints on restarting our activities is the fact that our South Sudanese staff is as
much affected by the violence as the rest of the community here – we still miss 27 staff.

Three weeks after the attacks we still see patients with gunshot wounds, wounds people got by fleeing
from the violence. But also a lot of malaria cases – almost half of the patients that we see have malaria.
We see diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and of course that comes from the fact that people have been
scattered in the bush, fleeing from the violence, and sleeping outdoors, not having mosquito nets, and
so we see the consequences of that.

This was a major attack, here in Pibor County. I was myself on the road leading south of here, three days
ago, and half of the villages that I saw were burnt out.

At the same time we have to say that this is not the first time that such an attack happens in Jonglei
State. Last year we have had several attacks, here in Pibor County, but also in Pieri, an area north
of Pibor. The teams there have had the same problems here, with the hospital being ransacked, evacuation, many wounded, many women and children being between the wounded. This is not the first
time; this is a recurrent problem all over Jonglei State.

Since this interview was recorded, two of MSF’s missing staff have been located; 25 others remain
unaccounted for.

Stories from survivors of ongoing extreme violence One recurring characteristic of the attacks in Jonglei State, South Sudan during recent months is their extreme violence. A deeply worrisome pattern is emerging, where people and their scarce resources are deliberately targeted by all the armed groups in this intercommunal violence. These are some of the stories patients have been telling the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff providing care to people trying to survive the violence.
Patient testimony of a 24-year-old woman who was shot in the leg and in the cheek in the attack on Lekwongole on Dec. 27, 2011. Her only daughter, three, was abducted. Our village was one of the first to be attacked.  Three women, including me, ran with our children – my own three-year-old daughter and two of their boys who are 10 and 11 years old. We could only carry water with us for the children, no food, no clothes, nothing. We ran and tried to hide in the high grass when we heard them approaching. But they heard my child crying so they found us three women and the three children. They abducted my child and slit the throats of the two boys in front of us. They told us three women to run – we ran 10 metres and they started shooting. The other two women were killed right away. I was shot in the leg so I fell down. They came over to me and shot me in the head to make sure I was dead and left me there for dead. But the bullet just went through my cheek so I survived. I crawled to the river to take water and stayed there alone for seven days in much pain. I didn’t know where my family was or what had happened to my daughter, my only child.

South Sudan © Heather Whelan/MSF
A 24-year-old womanwho was shot in the leg and in the cheek in the attack on Lekwongole on Dec. 27, 2011. Her only daughter, 3, was abducted.

On the eighth day I couldn’t stay there alone anymore so I used a stick to get up and walked for two hours until I came across neighbours who cared for me for seven days. They told me that my mother was missing. Then they left me to inform my family where I was. I was alone again for two days. I crawled again to the river to take water. Then my husband’s brother found me and carried me for three days to Lekwongole. I couldn’t walk, I was so tired and it was very painful. Then MSF returned to Lekwongole and drove me to Pibor. I found out the next day that my mother was not just missing, she was dead. I felt so lonely. My mother is dead yes but at least if my child was still with me I would be ok. But I’m not ok, I don’t even know what happened to my child. From my family 10 people have been killed, four women and six men.  From my husband’s family eight people have been killed.  They also abducted my sister’s son, who is six years old. It is very painful because my whole family has been killed. My only child has been taken – I feel so alone and it’s very painful. For the future if I get something to work with then I will but only God knows. People are just stuck here with nothing now.     Patient testimony of a man, 39, who was shot in the arm in the attack on Pibor on Dec. 31, 2011. When the attack happened on my village, we fled into the bush with no food, just water for the small children. I was shot in the arm and hid in the bush with my wound for eight days. So much blood was coming out, sometimes I would just sleep without knowing it. At night it was so painful I couldn’t sleep. It took me another three days to walk to the hospital. I was lucky. They didn’t find my family when I was shot because they ran ahead and entered the river, keeping just their mouths open out of the water to breathe, hiding the rest under the water. You might be found if you hide in the bush but if you’re under the water they won’t find you.

South Sudan © Heather Whelan/MSF
A man, 39, who was shot in the arm in the attack on Pibor on Dec. 31, 2011.

In my community, some have been killed, many are still missing. We don’t know if they are dead or not – we saw some who were killed. There are children who have been taken. We are very happy MSF is here – we thought MSF would not operate again because everything was looted. We were afraid you would not come back. If MSF wasn’t here, I would not feel better, maybe I would have died. My home has been burnt to the ground, all of it, everything. I don’t know if I can go back home – because so many are missing, many are dead. We want to go back to cultivate, maize and sorghum for the children, but now there is nothing there. Those who are still alive, what do they think about all this death, the missing? Many are still crying, still looking for their missing children and wives. How can we think about our future?     Testimony of a mother whose one-and-a-half-year-old daughter was severely injured in an attack on the village of Wek, in northern Jonglei State on Jan. 11, 2012. At 5 p.m., our village called Wek was attacked. We all began to run away. My sister was carrying my daughter who is one and a half, along with another child. As I was running away, I found my daughter on the ground, crying and all alone. She was shot in the face and her mouth was cut by a knife. I picked her up and continued running through the bush. Eventually we stopped running and had to spend the night in the bush until morning. One day later a member of our community found us and brought us to the MSF clinic in Yuai, two hours away from my village Wek. We received treatment here until MSF brought us by plane to their hospital in Nasir. At this moment, I have no information about my husband. I think he was killed.  

South Sudan © Heather Whelan/MSF
An MSF nurse takes a baby’s weight in the very crowded outpatient department in the MSF hospital in Pibor. Wounded patients are still arriving at the hospital, three weeks after the violent attack on the town and outlying villages.


Testimony of a neighbour of a one-and-a-half-year-old boy who suffered severe head trauma during the Jan. 11 attack on the village of Wek, northern Jonglei State. This is the child of my neighbours. Both his mother and father were shot and killed.  His head was beaten against the trees. He was left for dead in the bush. He was abandoned, without any help. We, the community, came looking for people who needed help in the bush and we found him, still alive and alone. We brought him to the MSF clinic in Yuai where MSF treated him.     Patient testimony of an 18-year-old girl who suffered gunshot wound to the leg in the attack on the village of Wek on Jan. 11. It was evening when we were attacked. People all around us were being shot and cut with knives. When I heard the shooting, I tried to run away with my husband and my children, but I was shot in the leg and I fell down. One of my children and my husband were killed immediately. I was collected by my community and they brought me to the MSF clinic in Yuai. MSF then brought me by plane to their hospital in Nasir. I expect I will be taken care of as I’m with MSF.

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