It was less than three years ago when my wife, Ann, and I were in the capital city of Juba, South Sudan, witnessing the birth of a new nation.
We could actually feel the excitement of a generation of people, free to establish their own nation.
Our work in the coming years was to help in the building of hospitals, clinics and schools and train and equip South Sudanese to staff and run them.
The relative hardship of settling down in South Sudan – including heat, isolation and lack of basic amenities – was a small inconvenience in light of the chance to be a part of building a new nation with a people who had suffered so much.
Today, to paraphrase a title from a renowned Nigerian author, in South Sudan “Things Have Fallen Apart.”
The political divide led to fierce fighting among their own people just before Christmas and has driven a wedge through the country.
Ethnic groups are fighting each other, resulting in a horrific outbreak of violence, the massacre of thousands of civilians, and destruction and burning of much of what was built over these past three years.
“Is it time to move on?” we asked ourselves.
We left South Sudan a day before the fighting started to attend the funeral of my mother in the U.S.
I returned the first week of January when embassies and United Nations’ agencies warned foreigners to stay away.
Our belongings were intact, but our offices, vehicles, boats and equipment had been looted.
Thankfully, our staff fled to neighboring countries and were safe and accounted for.
That would have been the time to gather our essential documents and laptops and move on, which we contemplated.
I have spent the past six weeks traveling in and out of towns that have passed from government to rebel hands and then back again.
My goal has been to assess health conditions, visit refugee settlements, take stock of all that was destroyed and to render assistance – including essential medicine, safe-birthing kits, water, food, even soap – from the remnant of our supplies.
With each visit the destruction, the evidence of rampant killing, the bodies decaying on the streets, has numbed my senses and makes me wonder, “Is it time to move on?”
Our decision to remain in South Sudan during a time of war may not make a dent in the conflict, but our presence has helped to create attention and to leverage needed supplies for relief efforts.
Both faith-based and secular U.N. agencies have pledged support, and we are currently offloading medical supplies, tents and blankets, targeting areas where there are tens of thousands of people internally displaced in their own country in refugee status.
The families are everywhere: living under trees, camped along the swamps and hiding in fear from the killers within – their fellow citizens.
After so many years of fighting a repressive government to the north and winning independence, it is sobering that this young country has now turned against itself, with one group aligned against another.
Why do we focus on our differences? Why do we fixate on that which distinguishes ourselves from one another – such as the ethnic markings on our forehead, the color of our skin – rather than that which we have in common?
We were formed from the same clay, individually distinct, but collectively resembling the very face of God.
When we raise a hand against another, we only bring it down upon ourselves.
While Ann and I do not know what our long-term plans will be, or what kind of future this country faces, we do know that we are needed here, we are safe, and we have all the support and prayers for which one could ever hope.
We will thus continue to help even if it means rebuilding what we just yesterday put together, but more important, we will make a stand for justice, mercy and walking humbly with God.
Bill Clemmer is the South Sudan representative for IMA World Health, a partner of American Baptist Churches International Ministries (IM). Bill and his wife, Ann, are serving in South Sudan after 16 years of service in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A version of this column first appeared on the IM site and is used with permission.