On Dec. 16, Larry Duffee rose at 6:30 a.m., for an early morning run, but a steady thunder of gunfire stopped him in his tracks.
A Fredericksburg native, Duffee, 52, now lives in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba, but was evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya, two weeks ago after fighting took hold of the east–central African country in mid-December. The United Nations says more than 1,000 people have died in the conflict.
Fighting in the world’s newest country was born out of a political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and ousted Vice President Riek Machar, the rebel leader accused of mounting a coup attempt, according to Associated Press reports.
Throughout the first day groups clashed in Juba, Duffee and his co-workers at IMA World Health—a faith-based organization headquartered in Maryland that supports basic health services in underdeveloped parts of the world—remained in their residential compound. They used whatever technology was available to them—phones, email, text messages and Skype—to make sure their co-workers in other parts of the country were safe.
The next day was more of the same.
On Wednesday through Friday of that week, Duffee returned to his office and worked to close the building and brought staff back in from the field.
“But behind all of these normal activities . . .like handling payroll, paying bills . . . was the tension that people feared a reprisal attack upon Juba from rebel forces whom we watched taking over large swaths of the country,” he said in email exchanges with The Free Lance–Star.
IMA employs about 50 people in South Sudan and also has offices and teaching hospitals in Bor and Malakal, north of Juba. Duffee said he learned those buildings were looted and damaged during the fighting.
He remained working in Juba until Dec. 21, when it became clear he and the remaining staff had to evacuate.
“I am very safe and secure, but anxious about friends and colleagues back in South Sudan and want to return as soon as possible to begin the work of rebuilding,” he said.
Duffee had lived in the Fredericksburg area since the early 1980s. He worshipped at St. George’s Episcopal Church and owned a variety of wholesale distributing companies. But in early 2010, Duffee sold his businesses and became a volunteer for the Episcopal Church of South Sudan.
“I was contemplating making a change in my life. In what I can only refer to as a ‘calling,’ I was developing a sense that I wanted to change the direction of my life to using all the the education and experience that I had been blessed with to serving a different purpose, one involving helping others.”
He decided to work overseas wherever his skills—for business, finance and administration—were most needed, and reached out to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to ask where they needed help.
The diocese’s most dire need was in Sudan, where the church is one of the largest social services providers, but needed help with finances and administration.
What was originally a four-month project has turned into a career.
“Somehow I just never felt the need to leave,” he said. “The need for the skills I had to offer was bottomless.”
He was in the country in January 2011 for the referendum, and in July of the same year when South Sudan gained its independence.
Duffee joined IMA World Health, a nongovernmental organization, in May 2013 as the need for basic health services became apparent to him. Duffee plans to return to the country this Monday to assess the damage to offices and teaching hospitals owned by IMA.
“Because the violence is not directed against Westerners, I have little concern for my safety at this time,” he said.
Duffee said he had been concerned that the country might erupt since July, when the president dissolved the cabinet and changed vice presidents.
“It is important to stress that what is happening in South Sudan is not tribal warfare,” he said. “It does a great disservice to the people of South Sudan to label it as such, and it only helps to inflame passions and make it more difficult to resolve the problems. The core of the problem is one of politics, power and control and these are issues being fought out by political leaders.”
Duffee makes the costly trip back to Fredericksburg only once a year, but said he doesn’t feel any difficulty being a foreigner in the fledgling country.
And he doesn’t plan on moving back to the United States anytime soon.
“I have never felt threatened or in any danger here and I have traveled all over the country mostly by public transport,” he said. “I have visited small, remote villages and slept on mud floors and have always been treated with the greatest kindness and hospitality . . .The people of this country are very lovely, something that makes living here so wonderful.”
Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976