Three weeks into South Sudan's bloody political war, thousands of members of Omaha's Sudanese community wait, and hope, and pray for word from their loved ones.
“The story is the unknown, people trying to find out what's going on,” said Ann Marie Chudlacz, executive director of the Southern Sudanese Community Association, an Omaha organization that aids refugees from South Sudan and other countries. “They're trying to get a handle on what's going on — who's OK, who's passed away.”
It made for a tense Christmas season and unsettled start to the new year, here and in their battle-scarred homeland.
“There's a lot of prayer being held,” said Seth Mock, a native Sudanese who emigrated to the United States as a boy in 1995.
Mock said he is in daily telephone contact with a jittery cousin in Juba who is trying to avoid the bloodshed.
“He holds up the phone and said, 'Listen to the gunshots,' ” Mock said. “We keep talking to him to try and calm him down.”
An estimated 10,000 Sudanese — most of them Christians — make their homes in Nebraska. They arrived as refugees from the civil war there during the 1990s and early 2000s.
They found people with similar values here — religious people with strong family ties, Sudanese leaders say. They also found good jobs, affordable houses and welcoming churches.
“We feel at home here,” Mock said.
Most of the Sudanese are from South Sudan, an oil-rich but largely undeveloped region of about 8 million people that became independent from Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict. Some have returned to help rebuild their home country.
“A lot of the officials in South Sudan that we're working with are from here,” said Buey Ray Tut, 27, a Sudanese native whose company, Aqua-Africa, is building water projects to bring clean drinking water to villages in South Sudan.
The current hostilities grew out of a long-simmering political rivalry between South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and the former vice president, Riek Machar, from the Nuer tribe. The Dinka and the Nuer are the two largest of several dozen tribes in South Sudan.
On Dec. 15, Kiir fired 11 Nuers from the government and arrested them, accusing Machar of plotting a coup against him. Within hours, the South Sudanese army disintegrated into ethnic factions. Soldiers began killing each other at two military bases in the capital, Juba. In the chaos that followed, bands of Dinka and Nuer soldiers began breaking into homes and killing people from the other tribe, according to witnesses. The fighting has continued sporadically ever since.
Both Dat is one of the lucky Omahans who has escaped from the country with his life.
Dat, 26, of the Nuer tribe, was staying with his brothers in New Site, an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Juba. They had returned home from Sunday evening church services on Dec. 15 when they started to hear gunshots in the distance.
“It was like firecrackers going off,” Dat said. “We couldn't sleep.” During the night, the shooting came closer.
“A shot came into my house,” Dat recalled. “I left with just these jeans and my passport. That's it. We ran and ran.”
They hid in the country overnight and into the next day. But they knew they had to find a safe place. After a full day of running and hiding, Both Dat and his brothers found refuge in the home of some friends in a suburb of Juba.
Then the South Sudanese soldiers broke in and pointed their rifles.
“They told us to put our hands up,” said Dat. “I had to put my passport in my boxers because if they knew I was American, they would kill me.”
Their lives were saved thanks to the intervention of a government official, a Dinka.
The next day, they were escorted to a military compound. The sights they saw on the way shocked them.
“You could see dead people in the streets,” Dat said. “Some of them were children.”
They tried to go back to their house. They found its contents ransacked, their car burned.
“Everything we owned, we just left,” Dat said.
On Dec. 18, they reached a U.N. compound where thousands of refugees had gathered. It brought back memories of the austere refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia where he and many other Nebraska Sudanese had spent their childhoods fleeing from war in their homeland.
Dat was one of the lucky ones. He walked to the nearby airport where U.S. military flights were ferrying U.S. citizens to Nairobi. From there, he made his way home to Nebraska. A 2006 graduate of Omaha South High School, he has a degree in criminal justice from Wayne State College and is hoping to find work. He is living with family members and is seeking to bring his new bride to Omaha from Africa.
Many members of the Nebraska Sudanese community are hoping for word soon on the safety of Lam Thichuong, another Omahan who hasn't been heard from since the first day of the war. Dat and Tut are his nephews, and Mock is a close friend. Thichuong, 39, came to Omaha as a refugee in the mid-1990s. He earned his U.S. citizenship in 2002, joined the Marines and deployed to Iraq. After finishing his tour, he returned to Omaha and worked at the Charles Drew Health Center.
When South Sudan won its independence, Thichuong — like many refugees — headed back to help rebuild the country. He landed a job as a personal secretary to Machar, then the vice president. He helped arrange a 2012 visit by Machar to Omaha, where he met with then-Mayor Jim Suttle.
Dat said he and his uncle were together in Juba the day before the fighting started but hasn't seen him since.
“As each day goes by, we're more and more concerned,” Tut said.
South Sudanese community leaders here fear a bloodbath as bad as the Rwandan genocide in 1994 if the two sides don't sit down and negotiate a solution soon. Ending the conflict is a shared goal for Nebraskans like Mock, a Nuer, and his good friend, Peter Kuany, a Dinka.
“It's so easy to get sidetracked and start picking sides,” Mock said. “We are for unity.”
The political and ethnic differences that seem so important over there don't matter much over here, said Kuany, a 30-year-old graduate student who lives in Waterloo.
“The situation is not good, whether you are Nuer or whether you are Dinka,” he said. “On one side are South Sudanese, and on the other side are South Sudanese, and they are killing each other.”
“Nobody's a winner,” he added. “Everybody is suffering.”