Rumor and Reality

The ASAH girls gather for a picture in one of the new dormitories built in 2013.

The ASAH girls gather for a picture in one of the new dormitories built in 2013.

News from South Sudan has been grim since the attack in Juba on Sunday, December 15. But many in the US reading this may not be aware of the conflict, because our national news was slow to report. Obama finally made a statement on the 19th. The Forum, our local Fargo paper, reported on the conflict Sunday, and today a local reporter’s story gathered by talking to Fargo refugees from South Sudan made the front page.

It is difficult to know the truth behind the origination of the attacks, to understand the current situation with accuracy, and to speculate an outcome. Reports from each side conflict or may be slanted, and most offer only cursory information.

Power Struggle
President Salva Kiir claims a coup attempt by the ousted former VP Riek Machar, which Machar denies. The men represent the two largest tribes, Dinka and Nuer, respectively. The current conflict appears to be primarily between these two tribes, but this is a simplification and to report it in this way makes it seem as though these tribes are at war with each other, when in most cases, these tribes live peacefully as neighbors, intermarry, and share resources. This fighting has been initiated by people in leadership roles, is between army and rebel forces, and is a fight for power. These same leaders have the power to stop it before it leads to fighting amongst civilians and destruction of the way of life the people have worked to establish since independence.

The world’s newest country has been stumbling in its efforts to achieve democracy. Kiir’s leadership has not united the many tribes in the country to work toward the good of all. Though money has flowed into the country to develop infrastructure to support production of the tremendous oil resources, much of this money has lined pockets instead of building roads, schools, and hospitals. Roughly the size of Texas, South Sudan has only 100 miles of paved road, a minority of children attend school, and medical services are few and far between.

The Attack
The initial attack took place in Juba, the country’s capitol, which is in the southern part of South Sudan near the border with Uganda. Fighting in the streets continued for a couple of days, but the city has been mostly quiet since then, and the government remains in control. People lost their lives, but reports on the numbers vary.

More critical is the situation in Bor, the capitol of Jonglei State, the state where the ASAH school is located. Duk Payuel is about 100 miles north of Bor, but the road is so rough, it can take six or seven hours to drive there. The city of Bor was taken over by the rebels last week. Residents fled into the bush, and some took refuge at the UN compound. The US military sent aircraft from Uganda to evacuate US citizens at the UN in Bor. The aircraft took fire when they attempted to land, and four US soldiers were injured. They turned around and returned to Uganda. Since that time, a successful mission has rescued these Americans at the UN, which likely leaves the thousands of people who have taken refuge there, without services.

Current Situation
News reports now confirm that the army is on its way to Bor to retake that city from the rebels. The President has offered to meet with Machar, but Machar has thus far declined. By the time you read this, the situation could be different.

ASAH School for Orphaned Girls
It is term break, so the ASAH students are home with their guardians, some in Duk Payuel, and others in neighboring villages. Our staff and school are safe, as is the John Dau Foundation Lost Boys Clinic. There is no expectation of an attack in Duk Payuel. Our village is a Dinka village which neighbors other Dinka villages, and we have been fortunate to have avoided direct conflict in our village over the past years.

The Effect
That is not to say that we have been unaffected by this conflict. Our program manager, Dau, went from Bor to Juba prior to December 15. It is now the dry season, and we need materials to finish our kitchen/dining compound and to build another dormitory to house new students, beds, mattresses, food and other supplies. He left his family behind in Bor when he came to make the purchase. When Bor was attacked, he was unable to reach his wife for a few days. He learned from others that she and their four sons, ages two to eight, had taken refuge at the UN compound in Bor. He finally reached her by phone on Saturday. She and the children were forced from their home by rebels, and not allowed to take any belongings. The first couple of days at the UN, they had no food. On Friday, a neighbor brought them food and blankets. I can only imagine how helpless he was feeling when we corresponded through Facebook, and he said he could hear his adoring son crying in the background. Dau will remain in Juba until it is safe to travel.

John Dau Lost Boys Clinic
The Lost Boys Clinic employs South Sudanese medical personnel whenever possible, but there are not enough trained medical people in the country, so they supplement their staff with pharmacists and lab technicians or other specialties from Kenya, including their electrician, Fred. Their policy is to evacuate foreign workers in case of a security threat, and true to their word, they did this last week. I learned about the situation first from Fred, who called my cell phone from his computer through Facebook. For free! The ability to get news back and forth by cell phone, by Skype, through Facebook, email and such makes a tremendous difference in that villages like Duk Payuel are NOT cut off from the rest of the world. still, it isn’t easy. Peter, a lab technician for the clinic who I first met in 2007, had recently taken a job in Bor. He was forced to flee. He hid in the bush and walked and ran (said he felt like the Lost Boys may have felt) the entire 100 miles to Bor. The plane that evacuated the other Kenyans had already come and gone.

What Next?
PROTECT is the first word in the ASAH mission of Protect. Educate. Empower. We had envisioned this as protecting our girls from forced marriage, protecting their right to go to school, and protecting them from health problems through vaccination and training in first aid and hygiene.

It is unrealistic to think we are in a position to protect our 34 current students if an outright civil war broke out, but you should know that we would do everything in our power to protect the girls under our care. When our girls return to school at the end of January, we will work out a system and train them, as we practice fire drills in schools here, or as has become necessary today – we prepare students and teachers for attack within US schools! We are not immune from terror. In Duk, our goal would be to talk with our students’ families and determine the best way for the girls to reach or locate them in case of emergency. For girls from more distant villages, we will develop a buddy system with our local students and guardians, so that these girls will have a family to take them in.

In case of evacuation, the Sudanese are quite good about knowing where to go and spreading the word about danger. Even without cell phones, they have an efficient word-of-mouth relay. Within the village, they use a “town crier” to announce important news. I was there during the happy celebration when South Sudan became independent in July of 2011. The booming voice of the town crier carried through the clear air as he announced the news throughout the village.

Expect the best, Prepare for … .
My personal approach is to expect the best but prepare for the worst. Today I am expecting a peaceful resolution that will allow me to return to South Sudan in February with Kevin Brooks, Paul Fields, Richard Hoffman, and Jessica Wunderlich. Kevin will be doing teacher training for our staff, the local Payuel Primary school teachers, and teachers from neighboring villages. Paul and Richard are from the Lutheran Church of Peace in Platteville, Wisconsin. They will be working on a building project – pouring concrete floors in our classrooms and overseeing the building of a new dormitory. Jessica will be there to document our work through video and to continue interviews for a documentary we are working to illustrate what the future can hold if women are educated.

Meanwhile, your prayers will be helpful, and your donations will help us ensure our students’ well being now and into the future, whatever it holds.