SOUTH Sudanese-born Zachria Akojom felt part of Brisbane’s Bracken Ridge parish when he arrived nine years ago.
Now he and his wife Mary Baid have even more reason to feel a strong connection.
For more than two weeks recently, the parishioners of St Joseph and St Anthony were praying for his friends feared drowned as they fled the violence near the South Sudanese city of Malakal.
Their prayers have now turned from sadness to hope following a report that Zachria’s childhood friends and their children – 17 in all – aboard a boat have survived.
“Many boats were leaving Malakal to cross the Nile River to escape the fighting,” Mr Akojom (pictured) said.
“My friends were on one of these boats.
“One of the boats, a large ferry, sank and at first it was feared my friends and their children were on it. The ferry which was overloaded went down and at least 200 drowned.”
Mr Akojom learnt this news from his brother Pio Gabriel who had also fled from Malakal before escaping across the Nile River with his wife and five children.
“For a while, things looked very bad for my friends,” he said. “I asked my brother to do his best to find out what had become of them. Then the wonderful news came back … they’re still alive, living in a village of Waw.
“We had all been praying for them … it would have been too hard to lose them all.
“I say ‘thank you God’ because they have been found alive. I now pray to God: ‘Please keep them alive in that dangerous place’.”
Mr Akojam knows how dangerous life can be in the war-torn country.
His uncle, Uoncis Aropmyiek, father of eight children, was killed on January 19.
“He went back to his village Atar, near Malakal, to try to get cattle away from fighting,” Mr Akojam said. “The rebels killed him … they chased and shot him.”
Two cousins were also killed in Malakal – on December 26 and 30. Both fathers of large families, the men were killed trying to find food for families as the conflict raged about them.
Mr Akojom said he’d known little stability in his life until he came to Australia in 2005.
He quickly came to feel part of Bracken Ridge parish especially with the parish’s frequent prayers for the situation in South Sudan.
Prior to this, he, his parents and three brothers and three sisters had fled Sudan for Egypt in 1988 when fighting broke out. Since settling in Australia, he has been working at an aged-care establishment for the past seven years. He’s also completing community services studies with TAFE.
Parish priest Fr Gerry Hefferan said prayers for Mr Akojom’s friends had begun after the parish received the news of the fears for the people fleeing the violence.
“Zac told the parish of the possible disaster after the morning Mass on January 19,” he said. “Prayers for their survival immediately became part of our parish prayer.
“Now we’ve heard Zac’s friends and their families are all right. This is great news.”
Fighting between Government and rebel forces has been intense in and around oil-rich Malakal since the outbreak of hostilities late last year.
Malakal, which produces the bulk of South Sudan’s oil, has already changed hands twice since the country was engulfed in unrest in December.
This followed an attack by renegade soldiers on an army headquarters in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, which quickly spread around the country.