An Oregon Jesuit who went to South Sudan last November to help at a Catholic college was forced to evacuate when violence erupted in the fledgling nation.
Father Gary Smith was awakened before dawn Dec. 15 by small arms fire in Juba and then larger artillery. The 76-year-old priest dove to the floor for cover several times in the next tense days, but was not injured. He flew out on a transport in the middle of the night the week before Christmas.
Fighting in South Sudan was part of a split in the ruling party, which was composed of tribal and military leaders. The fighting has dampened the excitement of 2011, when the world watched as South Sudan voted for independence from the government in the north of the desert nation. Former allies against the north had now become murderous enemies.
Father Smith was not surprised at the strife.
"I figured these powerful people might get violent," he says. "They were used to getting their way and knew how to use guns."
Fighting raged for five days, with bullets flying everywhere. One afternoon, with shots echoing around the city, Father Smith peered into the compound of his residence and there saw a 10-year-old girl rocking her infant nephew and singing to him for an hour.
"Here was the beauty of humanity, the stuff of the heart, being shared, given to a little baby," Father Smith says. "Off in the distance the ka-thunking of Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Where is good in this world and where is evil and, in the end, who will win? I’d put my money on the heart of this little girl."
Father Smith had been giving pastoral care to the 500 students plus faculty at Catholic University of South Sudan in Juba. The ministry had been going well. One student even produced a photo from 11 years prior — his family at a refugee camp gathered around the lanky white priest, who has spent 13 years aiding displaced people in East Africa.
After the initial fighting in Juba, Father Smith met with many dazed students who had seen horrors.
"People were mowed down, or taken out and executed, and then dumped into the Nile," he says.
Some students died in the attacks, which came along ethnic lines, the majority Dinka and the Nuer, old-time rivals.
The priest's 10-by-10-foot room had electricity for two hours in the morning and four hours at night. The building was in the midst of an industrial zone with generators thundering at all hours. He would walk several blocks to the Nile for peace and quiet, until the river began to fill with bodies.
As shooting promised to escalate, Father Smith's Sudanese boss at the college ordered him to leave. The priest did not want to go. He had planned to finish out his life of active ministry in South Sudan. But he could tell that his presence was just one more worry for the beleaguered administrator.
After standing for six hours in Juba's relentless heat at the airport, Father Smith found a spot on a U.S. charter flight.
"I was ticked off and tired and confused," he says. "It was then I realized I was a refugee."
The moment was profound for Father Smith, who spent years working with refugees in Uganda and other parts of Africa. He also served homeless people in Tacoma and from Portland's St. Andre Bessette Parish. He was now on the other end of need. His flight went to Nairobi, where he was taken in by local Jesuits. He is now back in Portland.
Even in the safe confines of the Jesuit residence near St. Ignatius Parish, he could not sleep for first three weeks. Whenever a car would go down the street, he would be waiting for shots to be fired.
About 400,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in South Sudan and disease is starting to spread in refugee camps.
"The lesson for me is a lot of grief," Father Smith says. "And I need to somehow be part of that suffering in South Sudan and hope God raises strong people up and bring them into that arena."