By Morgan Sherburne
Every year he is able, Atem returns to Sudan to work on his health clinic in Maar. This was his intention in early December.
On Dec. 15, 2013, a fight between two ethnic groups of soldiers — the Dinka and the Neur — in South Sudan broke out during the meeting of the country’s National Liberation Council. The soldiers were part of the Sudanese Presidential Guard.
The fight caught fire. The warring spread beyond the capital city of Juba on Dec. 17, spurred by conflicts between the two ethnic groups.
Amid the conflict, Jacob Atem and his wife, Linda Atem, were trying to escape. Linda was able to fly from Juba to safety in Rwanda, but Jacob was left behind in the United Nations compound in Juba, where he had made his way only after Linda left. The same horrors he faced as a child came roaring back. He remained in the compound for about a week.
The experience only cemented Atem’s determination to continue with the health care clinic in his hometown.
“People don’t understand why I go back, but if we leave, where would they get access to care?” Atem says. “Health does not have boundaries.”
Now, the clinic has no budget to pay doctors and has no medication supply to treat the more than 100 patients a day who have come to rely on the medical care they receive there. More mothers in Sudan die during pregnancy or childbirth than any country in the world — about 2,500 per 100,000, according to the World Health Organization. About one out of every 10 children will die before they turn 5.
Atem thinks about those numbers every day now that he and his wife are expecting a child. Linda will give birth to their first child in May. The couple does not know the sex of their child.
“Surprises are good,” says Atem. “We’re just grateful we made it.”