ARUA, Uganda (BP) — “Father, what has happened to these people?”
John Monychol quieted his young daughter as they ran past body after body.
Monychol had just returned to South Sudan’s Upper Nile region from a pastors’ conference in the southern part of the country when he began hearing rumors of a coup in the capital city of Juba. A few days later, fighting broke out near his home.
“People were shocked,” he said. “We were not expecting this fighting.”
The world’s newest country fell into chaos Dec. 15. Conflict began among the presidential guard between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the Dinka ethnic group, and supporters of former Vice President Riek Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group.
As the violence spread across the country, many areas quickly broke down into inter-ethnic fighting between the Dinka and Nuer, the two majority groups.
One of the regions that saw the most violence was Upper Nile, where Monychol has worked as a church planter for 14 years, planting 11 churches. Upper Nile is an area where both tribes live, making it a volatile region.
When the gunshots began in his area, Monychol ran with his wife, three children and church members to the bush.
For eight days, the church members — both Dinka and Nuer — hid together in the bush. They heard gunshots and didn’t know what was happening. Late at night, they would sneak into the village to collect water. They survived by eating wild plants and slaughtering their cows.
As the fighting raged on, Monychol traveled through the bush with his family until they reached an airfield, where they were allowed on a flight to Juba. From Juba, his family boarded a bus to the Uganda border.
“I wanted to bring my children to a safe place,” Monychol said.
Despite a ceasefire agreement signed in late January, tensions are still high, and many are afraid to return home.
An estimated 750,000 have fled their homes in South Sudan, fearing more fighting. The United Nations reports that up to 3.7 million people now face extreme hunger or starvation because of the conflict.
Monychol and his family are now living in a refugee camp on the border as he waits to return to Upper Nile to check on his more than 600 church members in the area.
“My desire is to minister to them and also do some counseling,” he said. “We need to pray together with members to see how we can promote peace and reach out to our area.”
Monychol, a Dinka, came to faith in Jesus Christ in 1992 during the decades-long civil war.
Monychol was fighting as a soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army when he was shot in the leg and left for dead. He was rescued by the Red Cross and taken to a refugee camp in Kenya to recover. One night in the hospital, he saw Jesus in a dream.
Later an International Mission Board missionary helped him to understand his dream, and Monychol decided to trust in Jesus. The missionary continued to disciple him and together they planted six churches in the refugee camp.
After attending seminary, Monychol returned to his home area of Upper Nile where he has labored to share the Gospel and raise up leaders in the church.
Monychol is encouraging South Sudanese believers to be united and not divided.
“In the church there is no division. We are united for the Kingdom and praying for each other now,” he said. “We know someday there will be a time of peace, because everything has its time. The time will come for peace.”
JoAnn Bradberry is an IMB writer based in Africa. IMB missionary Curt Iles is helping people get involved in South Sudan. Read more on his website.