Turmoil in South Sudan – Interview with American family who calls South Sudan home

On Christmas Day you probably were not thinking about South Sudan.  At least not very much.  I wasn’t.  But, if you are the Faders, you were.  They left their home and relationships in South Sudan for a Christmas holiday, not knowing their return would be tenuous.  A year ago the Faders were featured on willtravelwithkids, joyfully living their lives and raising a family of boys in South Sudan.  You can read the interview here to see how, over six years ago, they prayed over over their fears, left the United States, and moved to a remote area with three young boys.  Today, South Sudan is in political and social upheaval.  And it happened in the blink of an eye.  How does a family cope through this situation?


Eli and Bethany, tell us briefly about your family.

We have been married for 11 ½ years and have been in South Sudan for 6 of those years. Our three boys are ages 5, 7 and 9. One of the things I’m most thankful for is that no matter where we’re living (our lives sometimes feel very nomadic) our children seem to thrive and be happy wherever we are – the States, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, etc.

muscular men

Where are you today?  Are you home in South Sudan?

We had made plans months ago to celebrate Christmas with Bethany’s parents in Uganda so we traveled through Juba on December 11 and 12.  We walked around the city and we couldn’t believe it when we heard a few days later that there was fighting all throughout the city.  We bought pineapple off the street, ate at local restaurants and took a stroll up one of the main roads.  It really struck us when we saw a picture of a tank rolling down the street where we had gone for a stroll.

How do you talk with your children about the turmoil in South Sudan?  Do you try to shelter them in some ways?

We pray with our boys every night about various things that they are concerned about.  For example, if one of their friends is sick, the boys will pray for them and we make sure to thank God when the friend gets better.  So, one night last week, we talked to the boys about what was going on in South Sudan.  Their concern was for their friends and we could share that their friends were safe since we were able to get some news from them.  We went ahead and prayed that these friends would be safe and wouldn’t be scared.  Our boys are young so we don’t share everything that happens from day to day, but we continue to pray for their friends.

We absolutely shelter them from some things.  They know very little about the atrocities that have happened in Bor or Juba. But they know that we’re not sure if or when we’ll be able to go back to our home in Melut. We have not told them that the market in Malakal, where we went for a short vacation, has been burned and looted.  They are 5, 7, and 9.  They do not need to know these things.  However, they love their friends and should know how their friends are doing and what their friends are facing in their personal lives.

What stark realities are your children faced with day-to-day in South Sudan that children growing up in developed countries may not be exposed to?

Something that immediately comes to mind is education.  Over the past year, the schools have shut down several times as teachers have gone months without receiving a salary.  These teachers are often only graduates of the current level they teach.  For example, a seventh grade math teacher will often have only graduated 8th grade.  A 10th grade science teacher will only have finished 12th grade.  Everyone wants education but it is overwhelming complicated as schools are simple structures, teachers are untrained and under paid or not paid at all.  Books and curriculum are a luxury.  Students are required to take exams even though some subjects are never taught or for the last 3 months the schools have been closed.  Pause and consider your child’s schooling.  Despite some issues, you have an immense amount to be thankful for.

We teach our children in our home and have the luxury of doing this.  Many people in South Sudan are limited to what their government can provide.  It is hard to move a country forward with this problem of education.  Our organization sees education as an important way to build the nation of South Sudan so we have opened a Secondary School to meet the massive demand.  We have run programs for adults who have never received an education because of the war so that they can get an 8th grade level of schooling in four years.  These programs feel like drops in the bucket but for those few who have gone through these programs, their futures look a bit brighter.

As far as what our children face day to day, they know that not all of their friends get three meals a day, most of them only get one. So whatever leftovers we have after lunch every day, our boys take and share with their friends. Our kids also recognize that their friends don’t always have nice clothes or even shoes to wear. One day about a year ago, I “caught” my then 4 year old giving away almost all of his shirts – passing them out to all his friends. It was a very generous gesture and I wanted to encourage it but I also had to explain to him that he needed to ask me first next time.

For those who may not know the history of South Sudan and the state of current affairs, give a brief overview of the situation from your perspective?

South Sudan in AfricaSouth Sudan gained its independence on July 9, 2011 after fighting against the Northern part of Sudan for 21 years.  Although most tribes of South Sudan were involved in this fighting, the leaders and soldiers mainly came from the two largest tribes in South Sudan: The Dinka and Nuer.  These two tribes have similar cultures and have a deep and fascinating respect for their cows.  The young men of these tribes are given the task of protecting their cows from thieves and wild animals while also raiding neighboring tribes to steal their cows.  This has made the Dinka and Nuer enemies as they have historically stolen cows from each other (often men are killed during these raids and their deaths are revenged with more killing).  The Dinka and Nuer were able to unify to fight against the government of Sudan and gain independence.  Their unity was against a common enemy but was not without problems.  A large massacre of Dinkas by a Nuer militia in 1991 is still remembered clearly by both sides.  A good book on this period of time which involved the leader of the Nuer militia, Riek Machar, is Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins.

To summarize: South Sudan is a recently independent nation dominated by two tribes with a long history of tension between them.

The president of South Sudan is Salva Kiir, a Dinka.  The Vice President is Riek Machar, a Nuer.  Elections are due in South Sudan in 2015 and in July of [2014]. Riek mentioned that he would like to contest for the presidency.  Within a few weeks, he was removed as Vice President.  He asked the decision to be reviewed by the courts instead of taking violent action.

On Sunday, December 15, Riek traveled away from his house in the morning in Juba.  In the evening, a fight broke out between the soldiers of the Presidential Guard.  Shooting began between these guards. On Monday Salva Kiir declared that a coup was attempted but that it had been stopped.  Gunshots continued to be heard in Juba.  The following day the government announced its intent to arrest 10 former members of Parliament including an arrest warrant for Riek Machar.  Gunshots continued to be heard in Juba.  Reports of fighting in other states were reported.  On the 18th a Nuer General, Peter Gadet, rebelled against the government and gathered his troops in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state.  They took Bor town.  December 19 through 22 Thursday there was continued reports of unrest and violence, mostly in Jonglei state but also in Unity State.  People in Juba report that men are shooting anyone who is Nuer.  Planes have evacuated US, British, Ugandan and Kenyan citizens.

Whether a formal coup was organized or not, [it appears] the government in power has taken this opportunity to try and get rid of a political opponent, Riek Machar.  People within the military seem to have taken sides based solely on tribe.  Nuer men have been reported leaving their battalions to join other battalions who have a majority of Nuer in them.  This is extremely volatile.  Once the killing starts, it will no longer matter what originally started it.  Momentum will pick up and old wounds and new wounds will be revenged.  Already there are reports that civilians who are from an opposing tribe are being targeted and killed.

When I say reports, I am mainly quoting from Bill Andress who has contacts with church leaders in Juba and Jonglei state.  He has been able to reach some of these men to get reports from what is happening on the ground.  I have not been able to get through to our contacts to confirm any of these things.  Many organizations have removed their personnel from South Sudan.  SIM, [our organization], will follow suit and all missionaries are being removed within the next few days.  There have been no incidents of violence in our areas but this is a window of peace where people would be able to be safely brought out.  There are indications that the oil fields (where a large number of Nuer and Dinka men are employed) will become hotbeds of violence.  Already there have been reports of fighting in Unity State at their oil facilities.  Melut, where we live, is 45 minutes from one of the largest oil facilities in South Sudan so we are watching this area closely.

What resources do you use to get current news on South Sudan?

We recommend going to Sudan Tribune online at www.sudantribune.com

How can people who are concerned about the situation pray?

What we are praying will NOT happen:

Peter Gadet and Riek Machar, both Nuer and both very good military men, have a history of flipping sides.  They are now allied against the Dinka government and this could turn into an all out civil war.  Many men were brought up fighting and have few other skills or education.  It would be very easy for them to form alliances based on their tribe and pick up arms again.

A divided South Sudan is a weak South Sudan and people, specifically Eric Reeves, has opinioned that North Sudan might take this opportunity to take control of the oil fields in the south claiming that the south is not able to secure this shared resource (the South pumps its oil through the North, bringing much needed revenues to North Sudan).  This would be a return to not only civil war but potentially an international war.

What we are praying WILL happen:

  1. That civilians would be safe and peace would return to their homes and areas.
  2. That all church leaders would speak out against this violence and power struggling.
  3. That people would seek to identify themselves not by their tribe, but by their relationship with Jesus Christ and to follow his commands to love and live justly with each other.

I would add that with this additional information, you might pray for calmness for the government leaders on both sides.  Pray for the president of Uganda who will lead negotiations between the parties.  Pray for those who are relying on the work of the organizations for water, medicine, food, education, etc.  Many organizations are pulling personnel out and this could cause great problems for those left behind.  For example, there are perhaps 80,000 refugees in Doro where SIM has its medical work.  These refugees rely on organizations for health, food, education, etc.  The refugees cannot return home as their areas are being bombed or occupied by the military of North Sudan.


Photo credits: Eli Fader and Wikipedia Media

You can follow the Faders on their blog The Fader Five.

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