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Blind Masseur Helps Relieve Tension In War-Torn South Sudan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Japanese-style massage by blind South Sudanese - that was the painted wooden sign on our correspondent, Gregory Warner - that our correspondent, Gregory Warner, spotted in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. And he saw that side after a week of reporting on a civil war that still simmers there.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It was my fifth day in South Sudan. I had taken cargo planes and helicopters to U.N. camps to talk with many people displaced by the last two years of conflict. And I needed a massage. I wasn't looking for Japanese-style massage by blind South Sudanese, but there was the sign, right by my hotel.

Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello.

WARNER: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fine.

WARNER: Thank you for coming so quickly.

We're in a kind of small house in a dusty compound off the main road. Juba these days seems peaceful - people are walking to work. But the conflict has split the city in two. A few miles away, in a U.N. camp, tens of thousands of people prefer the safety of tents to the homes they fled two years before. Here, I'm the only customer. The receptionist leads me into a second room, warm and dim, and hands me some bright green pajamas.

WARNER: I put this on?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

WARNER: So we do the interview first, or do we do the massage first? OK, we do the massage first. OK - OK, perfect.

My masseur is blind. And the Japanese style - that turns out to mean no oil. It's about pressure points. An hour later, I'm so relaxed that you'll hear the difference in my voice when I sit down to interview another masseur, named James.

JAMES PITIA: My name is James Pitia. I am a masseur, working with Seeing Hands massage.

WARNER: Seeing Hands massage.

PITIA: I became blind in 1997, when I was 13 years old.

WARNER: So the massage is 75 pounds. That's about $5. How much can that actually buy here in South Sudan?

PITIA: Seventy-five?

WARNER: Yeah.

PITIA: Before, the 75 was OK. But now, the money we are getting here, most of them are going for transport.

WARNER: James's life as a masseur began in 2012. He was plucked from a teaching job at a blind school in Juba by a visiting priest from New York City who offered a training course in massage. James was selected with four other blind people - four men and one woman - to take the course. He'd never thought about massage before. But this was in the optimistic year after South Sudan's independence. The capital was flooded with business people and American advisers - all potential clients. What they hadn't counted on was that political rivalries within the new government were about to erupt.

PITIA: We graduated on 13 of December, 2013, and then on 14 of December, 2013, we started our business.

WARNER: And the 15th of December, the war started.

PITIA: The war started, yeah.

WARNER: So tell me about that.

PITIA: It was terrible because most of the people of our clients are foreigners, and they went out.

WARNER: And there was also gunfire in the streets.

PITIA: Yeah, it was so terrible for us.

WARNER: When the war moved outside of Juba,, they opened shop again, this time with a new clientele - humanitarian aid workers and priests who work with displaced people. James tells me he didn't have to watch the war - he could feel it in the bodies of his clients.

PITIA: They are filled with distress, tension, and everything is not going well because of the war. So after I give them massage, I say, this massage has at least relieved their tension and their stress.

WARNER: So a peace agreement has been signed. There may be a future of peace - we don't know. But based on what you're feeling in people's bodies, do you think that the tension is lifting? Do you think that there's peace coming?

PITIA: Yeah, it will take time. It will take time to relieve the tension.

WARNER: James, thank you.

PITIA: OK, you're welcome.

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.