"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy,
- Dalai Lama
I returned to Summit County just before Thanksgiving. My re-entry into the modern, Western world and all that it connotes has been a little harder than previous trips. My interest in helping communities less fortunate than ours took me to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, Africa, where a full-fledged genocide is underway. Four hundred thousand Sudanese have been displaced from their homes and, specifically, more than 65,000 Nubans have been part of a forced migration from the mountain farms they've called home for hundreds of years to refugee camps in Yida, South Sudan. The displaced are mostly women and children who walk for days, eating bugs and grass, many dying along the way before they reach help. Most of the men have stayed behind to take care of fragile elders or to tend to whatever animals they still own. They are also attempting to replant crops, hoping their families will rejoin them soon to rebuild their self-sufficient, subsistence lifestyle.
Celebrations erupted when the country of South Sudan declared its independence and was recognized officially by the United Nations in July 2011. That same year, Omar Al Bashir, the president of The Sudan (the remaining northern territory), banished all humanitarian aid organizations from the rebel territories of the north (communities including the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Darfur). So even if the government of the remaining northern Sudan were to stop bombing the Nuba Mountains, they continue to perpetuate genocide by denying access to the region by the United Nations, World Food Program and others. Because of the bombings they have not been able to plant their crop, which forces the people off their lands to seek food and shelter over the border. Al Bashir has stated publicly that it is his goal to exterminate the Nubans, whom he refers to as bugs.
There is no denying what is going on in The Sudan. In addition to the few eyewitnesses like myself, there are satellite images of bombings, and almost weekly videos on the internet documenting the atrocities. There is even documentary footage showing actor George Clooney running as a rocket lands nearby. Still, the international community remains silent.
The Nuba Mountains are geographically north of still-contested national boundaries. Both Sudan and South Sudan stake claim to oil and mineral resources in the area. Culturally, Nubans identify more with black African residents of South Sudan so this geographical uncertainty adds to the stress. Many in the North are Christian and some are Muslim, but not sufficiently Muslim to avoid persecution. Their religious preference and skin color serve as one more excuse for the genocide.
The contrast between a ski town and a refugee camp is so vast: it's hard to believe these experiences exist on the same planet. Those of us who have enough to eat should not feel guilty about our good luck. It's just important to remember that luck is generally why we have what we have. It is by "accident of birth" that I have a U.S. passport in my pocket and can always buy a plane ticket out of a war zone while those born in the Nuba Mountains cannot. As 2013 begins, please consider how you might be able to contribute to a better world, no matter where in the world you are drawn to help. The annual Summit Foundation Awards ceremony reminds us of all that is right in our community - how generous and innovative we can be when we work together.
I'm glad I went to Sudan. I was in the fortunate position to be able to give food to babies who had none, to deliver 37 boxes of medicine to clinics in the war zone and to help get a prosthetic leg for a young woman who lost hers to aerial bombings while she was working in the field.
I am a lucky man and grateful for all I have learned in both settings: the Nuba and the Rocky Mountains. We can't let the complexity or difficulty of a situation paralyze us with inertia. In Africa, the USA and all around the world, we must consider how to prevent harm to children, to halt government-driven genocide and to provide care to populations which desperately need our assistance.
Back in the U.S. it's hard for me to reconcile the contrasts of starving women and children escaping war and famine in their homeland versus the excesses of materialism and obesity in my homeland.
The last two weeks I was at Yida I took care of a single teenage mom, Najat, and her four-year-old son, Mohammed. After walking for days to escape famine in the Nuba Mountains, both had severe, acute malnutrition. Upon their arrival, weak and despondent, Najat weighed only 61 pounds while her son was about 22 pounds. Mohammed's face and ankles were swollen from his body's inability to produce the proteins needed to hold fluid in his blood vessels, so to get stronger he actually needed to lose this extra water weight before he could start gaining lean body mass. His light-colored brittle hair was evidence of many months of chronic malnutrition.
Watching their recovery was dramatic. They came to life like giving water to wilted flowers: alert, interactive, and even playful. Just two weeks after stabilization, Mohammed increased his weight by ten percent and his mother, Najat, had gained 13.6 pounds (22 percent of her admission weight). That would be like me starting at 154 pounds and gaining 34 pounds in 14 days.
The mother-son duo had not reached their target weights when they left the inpatient program to return to their extended family in the camp, but they will return weekly for supplemental food rations of Plumpy Nut (a fortified peanut-based paste) until they have done so.
I know my work abroad will continue. I would like to thank my clients, the greater Summit County community and all my High Country Healthcare partners, especially Drs. Randy Nations and Erin Hay for their support.
Dr. C. Louis ("Doc PJ") Perrinjaquet has practiced medicine in Summit County for 25 years. He hopes to motivate and inspire his clients to achieve maximum wellness and to advocate consistently for their own best health. Doc PJ practices out of High Country Healthcare's Breckenridge office. He travels internationally during shoulder seasons to help underserved communities.