South Sudan refugees cope with fighting in home country

Anna G. Larson, INFORUM
Machien Luoi and Gat-Kier Machar
Machien Luoi, left, grew up with Gat-Kier Machar in the same South Sudan community. Photo by Carrie Snyder / The Forum

FARGO – As South Sudan native Gat-Kier Machar was getting ready for work at Concordia College in Moorhead, he received a devastating phone call from a friend.

“He said there was trouble at home – there’s been a fight,” Machar recalls.

More than a week ago, violence erupted in Juba, South Sudan. The country’s president, Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, attributes the fighting to an attempted overthrow by former vice president Riek Machar, a member of the rival Nuer ethnic group, according to The New York Times. At least 500 people are believed to have died so far, and up to 40,000 civilians have taken refuge at United Nations compounds.

Machar, 30, and other South Sudan refugees in the area have been gathering at his Fargo apartment to relay information about their home country. They’re worried for their friends and family who live in the country, which claimed its independence from Sudan two years ago.

“It’s better for us to be at one place instead of at home alone in our own apartments. That is how we cope, being together,” Machar says.

‘Born in the war’

The possibility of a civil war is familiar to the “Lost Boy” who fled the war-torn country as a child.

“At one point I was thinking I wish I was there with them so we could go through this pain together. This is not the first time this happened. I was born in the war and raised in it,” Machar says. “I had to miss work a few days ago because my head wasn’t together.”

He says he wasn’t surprised, though, that people were acting out against the president.

“The democratic principles we fought for in the (Second Sudanese Civil) war are no longer in existence. The president is dictating everything. There’s huge, rampant corruption,” Machar says.

Machien Luoi, a friend of Machar’s and fellow Lost Boy, has similar sentiments. Luoi, 30, lived in Fargo before returning to South Sudan in 2011. He now lives in New York but is visiting Machar and other friends for the holidays.

“The civilians have become the victims, and that is not good,” Luoi says. “We urge members from our community to talk to people. We should be on the side of civilians, the innocent civilians who are suffering out of this political fighting. Crossfire could kill anyone. Crossfire does not know the lines of conflict.”

Hoping for peace

Both men are hopeful that with the aid of the U.S., the fighting will end peacefully.

“We want peace to return to South Sudan. I want to be one of the voices. If you don’t settle things peacefully, somebody who has done something bad is going to get away with the bad situation,” Luoi says. “We want to inform everybody on both sides to refrain from hateful messages that can send the flames of war.”

Although it’s difficult for him to be more than 7,500 miles from his loved ones, Machar is grateful to be in the U.S., surrounded by friends who understand his worries.

“We just have to deal with it and look at the bigger picture that we are here, in a country where there’s a lot of stability,” he says. “We try to cope and see that tomorrow is somewhat brighter.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525