Julia O'Malley: With cellphones, Anchorage refugees track loved ones trapped in South Sudan violence

Julia O'Malley

Cellphones have been buzzing with worrisome news the last few days among Anchorage's estimated 700 to 1000 Nuer-speaking South Sudanese refugees.

Conflict has taken hold again in their country, which has only recently been at peace after decades of brutal civil war that spread refugees across the world. At least 500 people have been killed in fighting in and around the capital city of Juba since a the weekend, according to news reports. Friends and family in Sudan have been calling relations in Anchorage from inside darkened houses and hotels. They say they cannot go out. Some have had no food for days. They fear for their lives.

"I talked to him four hours ago," Thuok Bol, an airport shuttle driver told me on Wednesday afternoon about a friend in Juba. "He say he don't even know tomorrow if he can survive."

Leaders of Anchorage's South Sudanese community called a meeting Wednesday at Faith Christian Community church on Wisconsin Street to talk to local news reporters about the situation in their country. They want to get the word out about what they are hearing in phone calls and texts. Nuer-speaking people and others from specific tribes, most of them Christian, are being targeted, Bol said. The news media isn't being allowed in to cover the bloodshed, he said.

"We need the world to know what is going on," Bol said. "Maybe they can send help to our people."

They fear genocide is taking place, he said. In news reports, the government of South Sudan has called the conflict an attempted coup. United Nations officials have warned that it is based on ethnic divisions.

Nyakor Kueth, a mother of seven children who works as a domestic violence outreach coordinator for the Alaska Institute for Justice, told me she has been communicating by phone and text message with the father of one of her children in Juba since Sunday. His name is Steven.

He was in a house, she said. He had no food, only water. He told her that he could hear gun shots.

"People have been knocking door to door, (killing people) based on their tribe," she said.

They are looking for people with tribal scarring marking their faces, she said Steven told her, and people who answer when spoken to in Nuer.

"Children are being killed," she said. "Women are being killed."

She says she is always watching for communication from Steven. The time difference is 12 hours. When she doesn't hear, she tells herself that he has just lost his cell connection, but she worries that something has happened.

Rebecca Kuon, a cashier at Walmart, became upset when I told her I'd just read a CNN.com report that the South Sudan government said things might be calming down in Juba on Wednesday. That wasn't true, she said. She gave me a picture, taken from the internet, of a pile of badly wounded bodies in the street.

She has been consumed with worry, she said. Sporadic cell phone communication from a nephew tells her that her family is safe, but without food. She prays continuously, she said.

"I am inside a house," she said he told her when they last talked. "But tonight maybe I will be killed."

Wednesday afternoon, she was still waiting for his next call.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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