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A letter from Nancy McGaughey in South Sudan

March 2013

U.S. Ambassador listening to Murle women

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  Psalm 27:1.

It started out like any other Monday.  I was sitting on my verandah, cup of tea in hand, reading my Bible.  There was the sound of distant gunfire in the background, as well as another sound that the Murle called the "big guns."  My friend Marie had gone to the market, and she returned, shouting even before she reached our building, “Grab your bags—we have to go.  Hurry!  Hurry!  Everyone has already gone.”  “Gone where?” I asked.  “Just hurry.  We have to go now, now,” she replied.  I could sense the urgency in her voice.  I took things inside, and grabbed backpack and computer.  Maria came from her room with some things wrapped in a sheet and started walking toward the market.  I followed, but not very close—she is much taller and walks faster.  She would turn around to be sure I was following and say, “Quickly, come quickly.”  As we neared the market, I saw that all the shops were closed.  We joined many others, all silently walking with possessions on their heads towards the UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) compound. 

Shelter from the sun

I had never been to the UNMISS compound before—we entered the gate to a large field with only a few trees.  Very few trees, and as is typical this time of year, and it was a very hot, sunny day.  People settled into groups on the ground and we sat with them, mostly women and children.  No one seemed to know what was going on, but the fear was evident.  You could see it on their faces, fear for their lives, for the lives of their children, for their meager possessions left behind.  You could feel the fear.  It was like an oppressiveness hanging over our heads.  They talked in hushed tones.  We sat there for almost three hours.  News came that the gunfire was due to a rebel force attacking three vehicles taking supplies to the army stationed further from town.  People began to return to their homes.  One woman said to me, “Thank you for sitting with us and not hiding on the other side.”

Seeking safety in the UNMISS compound

On Wednesday the U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan was to visit projects supported by the U.S. government in Pibor.  She was to address people at 2 p.m.  I planned to go to town around noon, check e-mails, and then wait for her speech.  Around 10:00 a.m. I heard the same sounds as Monday—big guns and rifles—only this time they were closer.  It continued for several minutes, so I decided to go to town early.  As I entered the market, I noticed that the shops were all closed again and no one was around.  I continued walking on towards the Commissioner’s office.  As I neared the other end of the market, I noticed two large U.N. tanks leaving the Commissioner’s office and several people standing outside.  Upon reaching there, I learned the tanks had taken the Ambassador’s group to the UNMISS compound.  I joined with others going there—this time to the "other" side.  Before she left, the Ambassador went to the other side to listen to the women and their fears.  I returned home. 

Preparing dinner

Later that afternoon I was told that it might not be safe to stay where I was and that I should spend the night somewhere on the other side of town.  I could go to another agency’s compound and sleep in a tent, or return to the UNMISS compound.  I took my pillow and a sheet and walked back to the UNMISS compound to join my friends there.  There were more than 1,000 people in the compound.  Families and groups had "staked out" their place for the night.  Some had sheets of plastic on the ground, others had straw mats, others only a piece of cloth.  I was lucky—my friend Maria was willing to share her straw mat.  I sat with the women and children around us.  I watched as mothers cooked what little food they had with them for their families.  We talked, we sang hymns, we prayed, and then we settled down for the night.  The ground beneath us was hard, the mat we shared narrow.  Above us the stars shown in their brilliance, a reminder of our common Father who loved us and watched over us.  The night was long.  The next day we sat and waited for news of what was happening.  The sun was hot.  I was given a place under the shade of one of the trees.  Others built temporary shelters from their mats and clothing to protect from the sun.

I returned to my room that afternoon, but even as I write this, many are still there.  Afraid to return home.  Afraid of what the soldeirs might do to them, afraid of neighboring tribes, afraid of the rebels hiding in the bush.   And it is a justifiable fear.                   

I do not believe I have ever known the kind of fear these people live with each day.  I may be here with them now, but I know I have a choice.  I can return to the safety of my home.  They do not have a choice.  This is their home, their life.  It is not how God intended for His children to live.

There are no words to express my appreciation to all of you for your support—prayers and financial—that allow me to be here with the Murle people.  I can only repeat the words of Paul in Philippians 1:3, “I thank my God continually for you.”  I cannot take away their fear.  But I can be here with them, walk beside them, pray with them, and remind them of the love their Christian brothers and sisters and God has for them.  Thank you for making this possible.

Standing with you in prayer for the Murle,


The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 103
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