MALAKAL, South Sudan – The eyes of the American parents living at a United Nations camp alongside thousands of South Sudanese refugees fill with tears as they describe their options: Remain and risk another rebel assault or fly to safety, leaving behind the 10 orphans who call the couple mom and dad.
For nearly two years, Brad and Kim Campbell have been feeding, clothing, educating and parenting 10 South Sudanese children whose parents were killed by conflict or sickness. Their missionary lifestyle was upended after violence broke out in South Sudan's capital, Juba, Dec. 15. Now the Campbells, their two American daughters and the 10 orphaned children live in an ad-hoc U.N. refugee camp that is low on food, water and sanitation.
The former Omaha, Nebraska residents are grappling with ensuring that daughters Katie and Kassidy Talbott are safe, and also protecting their South Sudanese children, who range in age from 5 to 16. Mother Kim Campbell, 54, said it is a tough balance to strike.
"I have two of my own children here," she said in an interview at the refugee camp on Monday. "We know the situation is bad. There is no food or water in Malakal."
The American daughters are adamant that they won't leave unless everyone can. Father Brad Campbell said the family is working with the U.N. and the United States Embassy to try to get everyone to safety.
"We've got these amazing kids we want to take care of, and we're trying to do that the best we can," said Brad Campbell, who works with the group Keeping Hope Alive. "This isn't the time for us to check out and leave them."
When violence broke out in Juba, the capital, on Dec. 15, life remained calm but tense in Malakal — the capital of Upper Nile, one of South Sudan's two main oil-producing states. But then fighting radiated outward from Juba, as army commanders defected and pledged allegiance to the country's ousted vice president. In most cases the violence has pitted the ethnic group of President Salva Kiir — a Dinka — against ethnic Nuers.
Tension began building in Malakal three or four days before Christmas, said Robbie Keel, a 53-year-old electrician and chaplain from Charlotte, North Carolina who arrived in Malakal a month ago to volunteer at the orphanage.
The sounds of approaching war crescendoed on Christmas Eve, when everyone in the orphanage took cover. Christmas Day, as orphanage volunteer Brent Trusdle put it, sounded more like the 4th of July.
"On Christmas morning it sounded like the whole world exploded," said Keel, who called the roar of battle traumatizing. "I didn't know there was that many bullets in the country."
The orphanage is only a half mile (one kilometer) from the airport, a key infrastructure the two sides were fighting for. With artillery booming outside, a bullet flew through the house.
The group — 10 orphans, seven Americans and two South Sudanese employees — took off for the U.N. camp some two miles (three kilometers) away. Most of the thousands of residents who streamed to the U.N. were not immediately allowed inside. The Campell clan was.
"Rather than put us in the field where the bullets were flying, they put us in a safe place," Kim Campbell said of the U.N. "And they specified it was not because we're Americans but because we had the kids."
The thousands of South Sudanese left outside the U.N. fence remained exposed. Stray bullets hit some, Keel said. Then the U.N. let everyone inside, even though they clearly didn't have the food or water to support so many people. Some 75,000 are sheltering at U.N. bases across the country.
Some refugees in Malakal are now getting out. The three Americans volunteers at the orphanage — Trusdle, Keel and J.D. Baggett of Nashville, Tennessee — flew from Malakal to Juba on an evacuation flight Monday.
The Campbell family is desperate to do the same, but their South Sudanese children do not all have the needed paperwork. The U.S. Embassy, Kim Campbell said, is doing what it can but has little influence. American officials, Campbell said, have told the family that the decision as to who boards an evacuation flight rests with the U.N.
"I understand we're dealing with international law and the kids don't have proper ID, but this isn't theoretical. This is people we know and love and we can't do anything," Brad Campbell said.
The Omaha, Nebraska family has been doing mission work since 2008 but really committed to the lifestyle when they sold all their U.S. possessions in 2012. The orphans mingled behind the Campbells as they spoke to a reporter. One, 12-year-old Ron Peter, has high hopes for his future.
"We want to go to the United States because there is many war in South Sudan," he said, employing a young student's English.
Another orphan, 16-year-old Panom Peter, said: "This is my dad and mother. If they go never will I have a mother and dad again."
Though Kim Campbell appears to be conflicted about whether the family should leave — and possibly do more to secure the children's future from afar — Brad Campbell and his two daughters appear committed to staying, no matter what may come.
"One of the things we've tried to do is commit to these kids: We won't leave them," Brad Campbell said, tears welling up.
"We're not going to go," said Katie Talbott, 23, Kim Campbell's daughter. "We're not going to leave anybody behind. I can't consciously leave knowing that they'd be left on their own to face what will happen."
Kim Campbell said the family may have to make a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours. She is praying they make the right one.
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