Behind the border
Approaching the village of Wadaga, the missionaries’ hearts sank as silence greeted them. The entire town, even the church they’d labored to plant among the Jum Jum tribe, had been abandoned. Confounded as to how they might find any remaining believers, they stopped and prayed.

 

Joe Jones (CFNet Missions), Dr Atar (SP) and Tim Dillard at Doro.

Background
In 2011, South Sudan split from Sudan along an arbitrary line in the sand drawn by the British government in 1959. Falling south on its eastern end, the line left a 12-mile wide strip of land wedged between South Sudan and Ethiopia but attached to Sudan. The collection of frail structures called Wadaga lies in this narrow peninsula inhabited primarily by tribes loyal to South Sudan. Many, like the Jum Jum, have found themselves the target of their own new government’s army, or worse, the heartless militia and pilots it has hired. Rather than negotiate, Sudan seeks to simply eradicate and replace the indigenous tribes, potentially with shepherds from the western province of Darfur who are in search of more pasture land.

After enduring aerial bombings and deadly attacks from helicopter gunships, many residents of the peninsula fled toward the border rather than await the arrival of the Janjaweed Militia, a group of ruthless killers who are credited with murdering hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in Darfur at the government’s command. With danger growing and people leaving, Sudan Inland Mission (SIM), Christian Family Network (CFNet) and Samaritan’s Purse (SP) personnel, aided by the airplanes of AIM AIR and Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), made the difficult decision to evacuate from the few nearby airstrips. Ten minutes after one plane took off with six adults and an infant, bombs began to fall around the airstrip, causing two more missionaries to request rides. AIM AIR returned, braving the battle zone. By evening, the pilots had evacuated ten missionaries. (See note 1: Evacuations)

Mirroring events in nearby towns, Wadaga residents also fled into the brush when hostile planes bombed their village and surrounding farm fields. Among them were Pastor Ayoub Wahab and his 6-year-old church of 70 Muslim-background believers. While they mourned the deaths of friends and family and comforted the injured, they also thanked God that they had been spared lethal helicopter attacks and the Janjaweed.

Miraculous Connection
Six weeks after the Jum Jum abandoned their homes, the group of CFNet missionaries arrived in the vacant village. They were not the only ones praying, however, and God had already responded. A single set of footsteps broke the silence while the missionaries stood outside. From around a corner, Pastor Ayoub Wahab appeared. Surprise registered on the missionaries’ faces, but the pastor welcomed them as expected guests. As greetings and questions flew, the story began to emerge: the night before, God had shown the pastor in a dream that he would meet the missionaries here on this day. God had reached where technology could not.

Flight
Pastor Ayoub Wahab gathered his entire church in several days and together they began the long walk southwest across the infamous line in the sand. Slowed by malnourished children and plodding livestock, many kept to a dry river bed, opting for treacherous footing in favor of encountering police and militia on the rutted, dirt road. Dr. Atar of SP joined them in time to drive some of the leadership and children to the border in a Landcruiser, significantly speeding their escape from imminent danger.

Appreciating the 24-hour trailer ride from Guffa to Doro.

Walking into Guffa, just south of the border at the end of the second day, the refugees set down their loads with a sigh of relief. Their rest, however, was short-lived. Not long after they arrived, the familiar sound of Russian-built cargo planes scattered panicked children in every direction. Adult believers stood still, silently praying and watching the plane drive straight for them, dropping bombs as it flew. Inexplicably, in the face of such apparent peril, the tangible peace of Jesus overshadowed them, surpassing all understanding. When the children noticed, they too calmed and stood still to watch the plane harmlessly fly directly overhead. While the sound of propellers faded, they paused to worship God again for sparing their lives. But they also realized that Guffa was not far enough from the border.

Thus the decision was made to set out for Doro, another day’s walk southwest. This time, hired tractors and trailers quickened the journey. They bounced over the rough terrain packed with tired, bewildered children clinging to their mothers, mothers struggling to protect their children from injury and rampant illness, and fathers who’d abandoned their farms and livelihoods miles away. Bracing against the jolts, fathers silently wondered how they might protect and provide for their families wherever they might find themselves at the end of this journey. Here in South Sudan, they had no rights and no land to grow crops or graze livestock.

Some Jum Jum load onto a tractor for quicker transport from Guffa to Doro. Pastor Ayoub Wahab of the Wadaga church sits on above the tractor’s right wheel. In a country where the authorities and militia are known to kill and rape, a man must make some hard decisions about how to protect his family.

A light dawns
Arriving in Doro, they joined a growing population of refugees who had also chosen this spot to rest their weary feet. Yet even here, danger remained. Few positive results arise from crowds of people with no food, little water, insufficient shelter and no employment. It is also uncertain how far across the border Sudan’s violence will reach. If that weren’t enough, substandard sanitary conditions and exposure to the elements have left many ill. Dr Kelly of CFNet treated every child he examined for some degree of pneumonia. Every child, that is, except one.

Uduk women from the Sudanese province of Blue Nile wait to be seen by Dr Kelley at the Doro refugee camp. Every child except little Marsha (above) was treated for some degree of pneumonia.

 The daughter of Pastor Ayoub Wahab and his wife Mary, born in the bush outside of Wadaga just before the journey, has remained healthy and strong. Doubtless in answer to many prayers, little Marsha Naomi not only survived to reach the day of her naming, her 40th day – she thrived. And she has become a wonderful little evangelist. She causes conversations and relationships that would not happen aside from the sweetness and wonder of a healthy little baby in such harsh conditions, a vibrant testimony of a living, loving God who is involved in His people’s lives.

As the new residents of Doro peer into an earthly future with little hope, the believers and missionaries recognize a huge opportunity. There is hope even here for true life, life that extends far beyond the only existence these people know to a life that counts for eternity. Many of these refugees have never heard the name of Jesus and know no option besides Islam. Many are from places nearly impossible for missionaries to reach. At home, it is doubtful they would ever learn the Good News. But in South Sudan, the Light has dawned and thirsty hearts hear the Name of Jesus proclaimed. People groups once considered “unreachable” have suddenly become accessible. In the midst of a seemingly dark situation, God has moved and now there is great opportunity.

A glimpse at the camp in Doro.

Looking forward
Along with supplies and food brought in with the assistance of AIM AIR, SP and MAF, Pastor Ayoub Wahab and missionaries on the ground in Doro hope to acquire a copy of the Jesus Film and means to show it. In the meantime, they serve Jesus by serving the people, because that’s what Jesus came to do (to paraphrase Korea’s Pastor Cho). And with the assistance of their two month old evangelist, Marsha, they announce the truth that offers hope. [See note 2: Opportunity, Challenge and Reward]

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Isaiah 9:2

Tim Dillard, husband of Marsha Dillard, cradles the little evangelist Marsha Naomi.

Note 1: Evacuations. Evacuations are an important, though gut wrenching, service AIM AIR provides for missionaries in areas like South Sudan. The presence of a nearby airstrip and an available airplane enables many to serve in areas otherwise too remote or dangerous.. Whether for political, medical or other reasons, the decision to evacuate is a very intricate, difficult one. At what point do you leave close friends and people you’ve worked hard to establish relationships with, to preserve your own safety and/or health, or that of your family? And how will that decision affect those relationships? Nevertheless, having the option to evacuate from volatile situations enables missionaries to reach further into remote and/or dangerous places. On the flip side, once the situation has resolved, air transport also allows workers to return more quickly. This incident in the Blue Nile region reminded pilots Jay Mundy and Jon Hildebrandt how important a service they and their airplanes provide in advancing the Kingdom of God to all peoples and nations.

Note 2: Opportunity, Challenge and Reward. For us who work with AIM AIR, this opportunity, like many, comes with challenges. Excitement accompanies the chance to offer logistical support to the Christians serving in Doro. But resources are already stretched thin from supporting a similar refugee situation further west in Unity state. More than ever we depend on God for wisdom on when, where and how to engage, and for the provision to support the work in Doro. For now our team and our partners have focused on meeting physical needs. But the truly rewarding part of our work is hearing how missionaries are able to introduce these shepherds, keepers of livestock and workers of the soil to the Good Shepherd and the Lord of the harvest. That is the reason AIM AIR exists.

Additional notes and credits:
– Photos by Steve Shelton and Medical teams worldwide team pictures, 2011, Doro and Bounj, Sudan. Stevesheltonimages.Com
– Stories and information courtesy of Joe Jones of CFNet Missions, and Jerry Hurd and Jay Mundy of AIM AIR
– CFNet operates in N. Kenya, South Ethiopia and Somali border area ministering to Moslems. Also operates and has missionaries in South Africa (their headquarters), Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and has ‘African’ churches in Germany and France.

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