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Former Weeki Wachee mermaid now working in Africa seeks help for Sudan

Heather Miller donned her mermaid costume while visiting the town of Kurmuk in Sudan.

Courtesy of Heather Miller

Heather Miller donned her mermaid costume while visiting the town of Kurmuk in Sudan.

When Heather and Jon Miller left Weeki Wachee in the fall of 2007 to work with Samaritan's Purse, a Christian international relief organization, it was like going home.

Heather, a nurse who worked as a Weeki Wachee mermaid while studying for her nursing boards, grew up in Tanzania; Jon, a construction manager, was reared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each had seen the great need in these poor African countries and wanted to dedicate their lives to helping.

After coming to the United States for their higher education, and each finding the mate who shared the same dream, they were ready to return.

Their first assignment was in a village in South Sudan, where they served for three years, utilizing their professions in a variety of ways before they were assigned work in Congo.

Last month, Heather, 32, sent out an urgent e-mail appeal to her friends and contacts throughout the world.

"I am writing with a sense of urgency," she said. "Many are unaware that another tragedy is taking place in Sudan, this time in the Transitional States, those bordering North and South Sudan. We have just learned that the town where we spent our last year was totally wiped out by the Northern military in an effort to cleanse it of those unwilling to bend to its will — those only wishing to live an autonomous, peaceful existence."

Explaining the complexity of the situation in Sudan was a challenge, Heather said.

"To many people, Sudan is a distant land, filled with nameless faces, fighting a senseless war. To us, it is a bleeding homeland, filled with named faces who haunt us in our dreams, fighting for the right to live a peaceful existence in their own country."

What many people do know about the devastation is that the government of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted in 2008 by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

Yet the violence against the Sudanese people continues. In July, South Sudan had an internationally recognized referendum and became an independent nation, the Republic of South Sudan.

In August, Samaritan's Purse, which has ministered in the region with humanitarian efforts for more than 17 years, set up a refugee camp for those fleeing the conflict. Using supplies provided by the United Nations' World Food Program, the ministry has been assisting and feeding more than 20,000 refugees.

"Currently, they are the only humanitarian organization reaching out to those who have fled the Nuba Mountains," Heather wrote. "They have been tirelessly providing food, non-food items such as tarps and blankets, and medical care to those fleeing across the mountains to seek safety and assistance wherever they can find it."

The camp in Yida is about 12 miles from the border between the Islamic Republic of Sudan and the newly formed country of South Sudan. Two weeks ago, the ministry received word that the Sudan Armed Forces had moved large artillery within range of the camp.

Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations for Samaritan's Purse, was there.

"People are still fleeing the bombing and the constant attacks by airplanes," Isaacs said. "The (Sudan Armed Forces) had shown that they were not afraid to bomb the camp. With planes coming in, you hear them. If you're in a hole, the chances are you're going to be fine. But with artillery, you don't know when you'll be hit, because you don't hear it. So we called for an evacuation of our staff. We have Nuba and Sudanese staff there, continuing to provide humanitarian assistance."

Recently returned from the war-torn area, Isaacs told of a bombing incident that occurred on Nov. 10.

"The government of North Sudan bombed Yida, dropping four or five bombs. All of them went off but one," he said. "The one that didn't go off fell into a schoolyard with nearly 300 children."

What happened next was a miracle, Isaacs said.

"It had two detonators," he explained. "I was there when the bomb guys came and dug it out of the ground. The detonator in the nose got bent, because it hit a tree limb about 12 inches in diameter. It broke the limb, and when it did, the fins on the back of the bomb were bent up and the detonator in the rear was knocked out. If it had gone off, it would have killed many dozens of children."

Samaritan's Purse and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are working together to help take care of the refugees, Isaacs said. They are also working to move them to safer locations.

"We're trying to work with the refugee community to find suitable locations to move them even further away from the border," Isaacs said.

Recently, actor George Clooney and John Prendergast of the Enough Project, published an article in Time magazine titled "Famine as a Weapon: It's Time to Stop Starvation in Sudan."

The two recount the suffering that caused tens of thousands of Sudanese to flee across international borders. They are the lucky ones, the article says.

"Those left behind in the war zones within Sudan — places like Blue Nile, South Kordofan, Abyei, and Darfur — are subject to a regime whose war tactics break every international law on the books," the men wrote. "But two war crimes in particular — aerial bombing against civilians and blocking humanitarian aid — are leading to the biggest killer of all: famine."

Isaacs agrees. The people at Yida are severely malnourished.

"The rate is over 17 percent," Isaacs said, "with 15 percent recognized as an emergency. Twenty percent is considered a famine."

Isaacs hopes people will want to help by contacting their representatives and senators.

"I always encourage people to become educated, but specifically what needs to be done is there needs to be a humanitarian corridor into South Kordofan and into the South Blue Nile State that would allow assistance to cross the border from South Sudan," Isaacs said. "And I would ask people to pray for all of Nuba Mountains and pray for the 400,000 Christians there."

Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse, is also attempting to have a "no fly zone" established over the border areas.

The situation is desperate, Heather Miller said.

"When we left Sudan a year ago, those we left behind asked us to share their story with any who would care enough to listen," she wrote. "They asked that people pray for them as they continue to fight for the freedoms so many of us enjoy — freedom of religion, freedom of ethnicity, freedom from fear and oppression.

"My intention in sharing the plight of my friends is to raise awareness of the situation so that those who are moved to pray for these people would do so. I would also implore that those who are able might consider how they can be involved in ongoing relief efforts through organizations such as Samaritan's Purse."

. Fast facts

To learn more

To learn more or to help, visit samaritanspurse.org. Find the Time magazine article at time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2101786,00.html.

Former Weeki Wachee mermaid now working in Africa seeks help for Sudan 12/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 16, 2011 7:15pm]

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