The situation in South Sudan is still very unstable, with 900,000 displaced and more than one thousand people killed since the warring broke out several months ago. In the last few weeks, the Comboni Missionaries, based in the Leer mission, fled into the savannah to escape the violence and destruction. Here is their account.
When violence broke out in Juba on 15 December, no one could expect it would spread so rapidly across the country. While getting to know what was going on in Juba, we in Leer, in the southern part of Unity State, went on with our daily routine, but with concerns. Soon violence broke out also in Bentiu, in Unity State. That raised even more concerns because Bentiu is located 130 km away from Leer. At this point the army had split and the opposition was in control of Bentiu. Fighting was occurring and people started fleeing Bentiu towards Leer. An estimated 30 thousand people had fled to Leer. Concerns were then even higher, and yet we hoped violence would not reach Leer.
Since conflicts began in Bentiu, the atmosphere in Leer had changed. There were days of high tensions alternated with days of relative calm, but there was never real fighting till the day we left. Leer market was the only one supplying food for the rest of the region. The movement of soldiers in Leer increased when government troops advanced and took control of Bentiu. Leer MSF hospital was operating normally.
On Monday, 13 January, gunshots were heard all through the night. At 4 a.m. some catechists came to inform us that they were fleeing Leer to the villages for they heard troops would reach Koch (Tharjath, 55 km from Leer). We decided to remain in Leer and to run to the bush only if we were to be under great danger. The gunshots were a kind of warning for the population to leave the town. We learned later that it was also to scare people and loot the market and residences as civilians were moving out. In fact, the market was looted. The MSF team of expats evacuated. Tensions and fears increased. The possibility for the war to come to Leer now was real. Leer had been very crowded in the preceding days. Now it became almost a deserted town. Up to this point the army in opposition (rebels) was in control of Leer. There was no fighting, but people would not return to their houses and there was no harassment towards the missionaries.
On Sunday, 26 January, the government troops had reached the Mirmir area (21 km from Leer). Fighting in Mirmir went on for some days. We could hear the sound of heavy artillery from afar. Tensions were mounting, fears were increasing. The remaining civilians fled Leer. The possibility of evacuating the mission at this point was pretty difficult, but still possible, if any of us wished to. However, we decided to remain. On Wednesday, 29 January, five different groups of police/soldiers attempted to take our cars. Some were drunk. Leer MSF hospital and other compounds belonging to NGOs had already been looted. The mission compound could be the next. Meanwhile we had received information from an MSF coordinator saying that in the front line of the troops there were the Darfurians rebels who were allied to the government troops. They would not respect the church as the army soldiers might do.
On 30 January, we decided to leave the church and seek refuge in the bush where people had gone. We did not have many options. Leer is isolated. We would be cornered wherever we went. So we went off. Now we had become also displaced persons, just like our people. As soon as we left, people, both civilians and military, started looting our mission houses and the mission schools. We finally arrived in Beer chapel at 1:45 p.m. We were welcomed in Beer chapel by local Christians and settled there thinking that we were safe. We assumed the government troops would reach Leer soon, but through the main road. Now we were 28 km away from Leer, and so, safe. What happened was that Darfurian rebels and SPLA soldiers attacked us just one hour after our arrival in Beer. They came from Mirmir through the bush and were divided into three groups. Those people do not knock on your door, they arrive shooting at you. When we heard the gunshots and the sound of bullets flying over our heads, we took what we could and ran into the bush. There was more gunfire and more running.
Early in the morning we moved to a far off location in the swamps. There we would be safer. The new location was a real swampy area and very widespread. There are hippos and crocodiles. It was cold at night and very windy during the day. It soon became crowded. Many other displaced families joined us.
We were in the same situation as all the people. We had very little to rely on, but we all had God. In fact, every evening at 5 p.m. we celebrated mass having an improvised small altar and people seated on the ground. We got all possible support from some local Christians.
We ate little, but never lacked food. They shared the little they had with us. We were worried and anxious also because the longer we remained there, the more we would be a burden on people. However, the only way to evacuate us was to get to us to Leer’s airstrip. So, we wrote a letter to the commissioner to enquire if it was safe to move to Leer and if we could stay in our houses. When we got a reply that we could walk to the main road so that he could pick us up by car, we decided to move back to Leer next morning at dawn. We left the place at 6 a.m. It was very cool and we were helped by the moon light. We walked for four hours. When we reached Mirmir we learned that the cars went to another location to collect us. We spent two days in Mirmir.
Finally, transport arrived and we were taken to Leer in great fear of a possible ambush. We reached Leer on Sunday evening, 16 February, and went to stay in our houses. It was heartbreaking to see our mission houses all looted. Only the buildings were standing with doors, gates and bathrooms all damaged. Everything else had been taken by both civilians and soldiers. The church was not touched, but all the buildings in local material were burnt down. It is very sad indeed to see huge investments and years of hard work all destroyed. However, our lives and our faith were not taken. On 20 February, we left Leer on a Mi-8 UNIMISS/WFP helicopter. After a landing in Rumbek for refuelling, we reached Juba at 5.45 pm.
While all this took place, many people wondered why we stayed in Leer when we knew it was extremely dangerous to do so. We thought that our presence around Leer would somehow inhibit atrocities and harm towards innocent civilians. We wanted also to give hope to our people and stand by their side in this war. We had been there for them, we would stay with them. However, we were very aware of the risks. We were not naïve, did not underestimate the situation and did not want to put any one in trouble either. It was our missionary option.