Have you ever been in stop and go traffic without another car on the road? I now have. We were driving in the Kiryandongo refugee camp and Pastor James Bab would tell me to stop.He saw someone walking and he wanted to greet them. So a short drive was made longer, but also much more pleasant.
Three guys from our Mission to the World (MTW) team, Ben Church, Bert Williams, and I, went to visit the South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda and the work Pastor James is doing there. We know Pastor James because he has studied at Westminster Theological College where MTW helps teach.James Bab is a Presbyterian pastor who runs a school that trains pastors in South Sudan. I met him last December when He came to Uganda to attend the Westminster graduation of some fellow South Sudanese brothers. This encounter led to a meeting and an accepting of an invitation to preach at the church he planted in Kampala.
Fleeing From Fighting
Just before he was to return to South Sudan and his family, fighting broke out in South Sudan on December 15th. There were reports of a coup attempt against the president (some dispute this claim). Regardless of the precipitation of the fighting, it is clear that battle lines are now drawn along ethnic lines.
According to the stories told to us one ethnic group, the Dinkas (the tribe of the president of South Sudan), are seeking to kill another ethnic group, the Nuer. The people in Kiryandongo are mostly Nuer. They fear for their friends and family still in South Sudan and are trying to make the best of their new home.
Every day, more people come into the camp with more stories of the suffering and persecution of the Nuer. One of the most recent arrivals, Helen, got to share her story with us.
Helen is Nuer and lived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. As soon as the fighting broke out her home became its own refugee center. She had 15+ people in the house hiding. But soon even her home wasn’t safe. She had to flee and hide in another house. When the murderous soldiers came, they wanted to demolish that house with a tank like they had done several others. They were trying to eliminate the assets of Nuer as well as eliminate any hiding places. Fortunately, someone told them it was the house of another soldier’s in-laws. So they let it stand.
Eventually she was able to flee to the compound guarded by the UN in Juba. There are UN soldiers who protect those inside. Helen was relatively safe in the compound but many are suffering inside the compound. However, there is little food, water, shelter, medicine, and other necessities available. Some murderous soldiers on the outside of the camp climb a tower and shoot into the compound and sometimes hit people.
****Warning – some of the things in the next paragraph are terrible, graphic, and not for the faint of heart
Helen’s story is tragic. But she relayed the happenings of others to us as well. Some Nuer found by the murderous soldiers were made to do unimaginable things and had unimaginable things done to them. The soldiers raped many women and even gang raped some into a coma. In a sick and twisted perversion, some sons were forced to ‘know’ their mothers. Some women were made to eat the raw flesh of some who were already dead.
****Graphic content over
These stories still make me pause and regroup. They are unsettling. But it makes their requests of us all the more amazing. More on these requests below.
These events certainly show the depravity of mankind and depths that sin will take us. Never before had I heard stories like this so fresh and real. Never before have I realized just how much we need a Savior. We need a Savior who not only hates sin but provides salvation from it. We need Jesus.
In February, I went to Rwanda and took the opportunity to visit the Genocide Memorial there. The stories between the two events are strikingly similar. Just a few days ago people were commemorating the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. I am afraid that in 20 years the same will be done for South Sudan if actions are not taken soon.
Inside the Camp
After stopping at the entrance to the camp to greet the camp director, we proceeded into the camp. There is one main road that is dirt. There are a few other roads that branch from it including smaller footpaths.
In mid-December 2013 there were 150 or so refugees in the camp. Less than 4 months later there are over 20,000. At first glance you might not realize this is a place that houses 20,000+ refugees. I was expecting something more densely populated. But granted, I have never been to one before. However, the drive down the road is pleasant with wonderful vistas of the mountains in the distance and greenery all around. There are huts and houses on occasion. They are rarely close to others. You can tell for sure if a house belong to a refugee because they will have tarp roofs or walls.
When refugees arrive at the camp they have to register. Then they are assigned a plot of land, given 5 poles and a tarp and bused to their new place of residence. The poles and tarp help build homes. Some refugees have opted to build mud brick homes as time and resources allow. They can also get a concrete slab and 4 logs given to them so a pit latrine can be constructed. Also there are days when food is delivered and they can go collect rice, beans, and various other food supplies.
Apart from tarp roofs and walls occasionally, the setting is very much like an African village. The scenery is quite pleasant. But the people are still in turmoil. They are grieving their family and country and they are trying to make a life in the camp.
Meeting with the Survivors
We were then whisked over to that shared meeting space to have a gathering. The choir was present with their robes neatly adorned. They welcomed with a song in Nuer and followed that up with another. I didn’t understand a word but I certainly enjoyed it.
James introduced us to the people and shared a few words. Then the people gathered shared their stories with us. Helen was the first to go. The others verified her stories and told their own.
At the end I Have Decided was sung in Nuer and I sang in English. We then joined hands, Americans and Nuer, in prayer to our Heavenly Father. It was a sweet time of fellowship with a dark and heavy subject. Yet everyone there was worshipping God and giving Him glory.
It really is a testimony to me that they would have seen and experienced firsthand and still want to praise God. They have a real joy and peace that so many are longing for in this world. They have a lot to teach us, especially Westerners, on how to rejoice in suffering.
After the stories were shared two requests were made. Several people stood to reiterate the requests and to share more about them. What they wanted was money to help get more people out of Juba and into Uganda. Specifically they want to get the widows, orphans, and sick out so they can come to the camp to receive some of the things not found in the UN compound there in Juba.
Funding to finish construction on the church building was the second request. They want to finish construction on a space for the Presbyterians to have a place to worship and offer space to the community. The current meeting space is also used by the Catholics and they use the space the majority of the time. Even the Catholics there were wanted this. It seemed to make sense.
Putting these two requests together remind me of God’s command in the book of Exodus. There, the Pharaoh is told by the Lord to let His people go so that they may go worship Him. That is what these dear brothers and sisters in Christ want. They want their people to be freed from the violence in Juba to come and worship God in Uganda. These refugees are being faithful in the midst of suffering. Praise God for their message and their testimony to God’s mercy and goodness. They are running to hope. The only hope found in Jesus Christ.