appreciate when we can speak their language,” adds Sister Eugene. Transportation was another problem. Though dirt roads usually allow for bikes, Sister Eugene recalls once having to walk 15 miles to reach a community. Some would even go so far as to swim across flooded rivers, before bridges had been built. Once they arrived, the sisters immediately felt safe. “The villagers cared for us. Women guarded us at night, sleeping around us in their tiny huts.” The sisters managed to win over the villagers through home visits and dispensaries that greatly expanded access to modern health care and improved the quality of life for communities neglected by the state. But their impact has gone far beyond medicine. Where school enrollment and literacy rates were once low, children in their school uniforms are now a regular sight in all villages. Student dormitories host Adivasi children from remote and conflict-affected villages. Sister Jancy says they have erected primary schools in all their centers to give children a good foundation. “If they are taught well in initial classes, they will do well later.” Sister Eugene also points to hygiene and health education, noting that villagers used to practice bleeding to cure illnesses. “They would bite their own bodies to draw blood. It took us many years to convince them to go for proper treatment.” Sister Jancy says the congregation plans to open a hospice and palliative center for the poor — especially those suffering from cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases. However, the sisters have been forced to restrict their village visits and health care services as conflicts between the government and Naxalites have intensified.
Sister Jancy and Father Thomas Kollikolavil say Naxalites rarely trouble the sisters as they recognize the sisters’ efforts to help the poor. In several villages, churches are seen as the only safe houses for visiting government officials to hold meetings or events. The community’s first superior says they have found villagers and police officers alike settling down around their convents, to feel safer. Yet, she adds, the sisters have often found themselves caught in an awkward position between the two forces, witnessing Naxalites cutting people to pieces and police torturing suspected Naxalite sympathizers. Once, Naxalites took a priest, a sister and a parish catechist from Gangaloor for questioning, demanding they stop hosting meetings and halt their work in the village. Sister Jancy recalls they were forced to close one mission after Naxalites imposed unreasonable demands. “They wanted our nursing sisters to perform abortions or bring medicines for them along with our supplies. We had no option but to close.” Police and administration have also accosted them. After one encounter with the rebels, Salwa Judum vigilantes confronted Sister Julie and others. “They questioned why the Naxalites had not attacked us. They accused us of colluding with them, and converting children of our hostels.” In one case, the sisters had to stand before some 10,000 people, including vigilante leader Mahendra Karma, to answer questions. Sister Julie says she vented her frustrations in an outburst before the district magistrate. Both Karma and the magistrate apologized, she says. These experiences did nothing to deter her. “I want to go and work in all those areas we have closed down,” she says.
Help the sisters carry the gift of hope to India’s forgotten families To learn more: www.cnewa.org
Her former superior worries about assigning sisters to remote and difficult areas. “I can’t say what would happen,” Sister Mary Tresa says. “But no sister working in such remote centers has asked for transfers so far.” Her successor, Sister Jancy, concurs, adding that the community must continue its work because the villagers depend on them. “Our services are very much needed. People are suffering in places where we have stopped work.” Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.
JOSE KAVI HAS MORE ON LIFE IN THE RED CORRIDOR ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
__ __ __ __ __
OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF CNEWA
The official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)