Love & War & Facebook

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Beth Watkins -Love War Facebook3By Beth Watkins | Twitter: @iambethwatkins

If you told me the first time I would hear the word “love” from a boy would be over Facebook, and it would actually be kind of perfect, I would have told you to get out.

I’d been single all of my 27 years, was fiercely independent, a little bit jaded, and pretty sure that, since I was never going to settle, I’d just be single my whole life.

Love comes when you least expect it they say, and in my case, they were right.

Dan is British, I’m American. It was 2013. We were living in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. We were both there trying to make the world a better place and loving the adventure of living in the newest country in the world. Juba is an intense city, and we got serious about each other quickly. By the time December rolled around we’d been together just over two months and my cynical heart had melted into a goopy puddle of smitten. I don’t really believe in soulmates. But … there he was. I still can’t explain it, really.

We exchanged Christmas presents early because he’d be travelling. It was a day of googly eyes, full hearts, and our first venture into talks about a future together. That night I fell asleep smiling. Then, I woke up to the sound of gunshots. At first I wasn’t concerned–it was common to hear gunshots in the night. But this was heavier, louder, and went on for hours.

In the morning the director of the former street girls center where I lived and worked told us to stay inside. We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew it wasn’t safe. Dan lived near some army barracks. He messaged and said there had been fighting there all morning. A mortar fell close enough that the buildings on his compound shook.

By afternoon, the city was at war.

Phone networks were unreliable so Dan and I communicated primarily via Facebook Messenger. I was trying to keep the children at the center calm, and Dan kept me posted on what the news and people on Twitter were saying. He warned me when fighting advanced to our part of town. But we could hear it as it happened; we heard when it moved closer.

The experience was a feeling I can’t describe–something akin to complete vulnerability, nausea, and a splash of disbelief. It was difficult to not fully comprehend what was actually happening and I felt like I was sort of floating above it all. Plus, there was the brave face and veneer of lightness I put on in an attempt to keep the children calm. We watched a lot of street dancing videos. It seemed to help.

We heard when troops advanced on the Vice President’s house. People came to our compound with rumors of ethnically-motivated violence. These were later confirmed to be true.

We tried to check in frequently. A long gap was cause for anxiety. If I sent him a message and he didn’t respond quickly, mild panic would ensue. I’d never been so torn up about another person’s well being in my life. My walled-up heart had finally let someone in. I feared losing him before we even had a chance to try at a future together.

That evening Dan and I messaged for awhile. The moments we were messaging were moments I knew he was okay. Those moments were a relief.

When I heard shelling and gunfire start up again I said I needed to go check on the girls. We picked a time to reconvene in the morning and said goodnight. Then he said, “Take care, my love.” It was a first for both of us. Ever. He told me he’d wanted to say it the day before, but decided to wait for New Year’s. “But, you know, if you get caught up in something … I didn’t want to not say it.”

I cried on my keyboard. The man I loved, loved me too. But we were in a city at war, on opposite sides. I was so happy and I was so scared something would happen to him before we could say it in person. That moment was the happiest and saddest I have ever felt in tandem.

Fighting continued the following day. The US Embassy announced an ordered departure for all citizens. The hope was there would be evacuation flights in the morning.

We had both been weighing our options carefully; both incredibly aware of our privilege in this situation, feeling uncomfortable that we had the option of leaving a conflict others didn’t. I felt a strong pull to stay behind—but do what, exactly? The director was adamant that I leave. The girls were in good hands. My staying could become a liability. If things got worse, there would be no embassy services to assist in a week or so.

Dan and I had no idea what the next day would bring. We agreed to both get out as soon as possible, not to wait for each other, and to reconvene in England. It was gut wrenching. Neither of us wanted to go first without the other.

We didn’t sleep that night. I doubt if anyone in the city did.

In the morning there was no confirmation whether the airport was open or if the roads were safe. Dan had a chance to get to the airport and took it. My stomach was in knots until he called me an hour later to say he made it.

After wretched goodbyes with the girls I made my way to the airport. I promised I’d come back when things settled down (a promise I made good on a few months later). Amid the patrolling tanks and innumerable armed soldiers, there was Dan, go bag on his back, waiting outside. I have never been happier to see anyone in my life. He was okay. I was okay. Biggest smile, biggest hug, biggest relief of my life.

Through a pretty incredible connection by a friend who had a link with an NGO chartering their own flight out, Dan and I were given the last two seats. We evacuated to Kenya, together, on one of the first flights out. The best possible scenario in one of the worst situations.

That night over the first meal we’d been able to eat in days, Dan looked at me and told me, “I love you.”

I said it back, and we married nine months later–in a more planned trip out of South Sudan.

__________________

About Beth:

IMG_20170110_143201_905Beth Watkins spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations. She is currently settling back in the US with her immigrant husband and writes about living toward the kingdom of God and flailing awkwardly into neighbor love at http://www.iambethwatkins.com, where her free e-book “For the Moments I Feel Faint: Reflections on Fear & Showing Up” is also available. On twitter at @iambethwatkins.

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  • Sherry Naron

    Hi Beth, I love your love story in the midst of conflict. I spent a good bit of time in South Sudan in 2003. So much conflict then, and still now, that the rest of the world is oblivious to. I have friends in Juba and other parts of the country. It’s good to meet someone else who has worked there. I’m praying for peace in Sudan.

    • It’s devastating! So many South Sudanese friends have only known war, their whole lives. When I think of South Sudan usually all my heart can muster is “How long, O Lord?” A beautiful land, with incredible, resilient people. So happy to know there are many others praying for peace!

      • Sherry Naron

        Yes, its heartbreaking. I did some research on how the different tribes have lost so many of their beautiful traditions because of displacement and scattering. It broke my heart. I drove across the border in Uganda with a UN worker who didn’t understand the poverty/war mentality and how defeated they were. I talked about how the Sudanese needed to feel some successes after generations of war and destruction, to start with some small achievable successes to help build their spirits back, he was clueless.

        While there God gave me a promise for them that I’ve been holding onto for all these years. Deuteronomy 30-3-5 – God, your God, will restore everything you lost; he’ll have compassion on you; he’ll come back and pick up the pieces from all the places where you were scattered. No matter how far away you end up, God, your God, will get you out of there and bring you back to the land your ancestors once possessed. It will be yours again. He will give you a good life and make you more numerous than your ancestors.

        Such beautiful people. I long for them to be restored.

        • Your reasearch sounds so interesting, and also sad. We spent 2 years working with Sudanese and Siuth Sudanese refugees in Cairo, and while they all faced a myriad of challenges in Egypt, it was sometimes so challenging to communicate with co-workers the depth of what the South Sudanese have lived through.

          Such a beautiful promise! May it be so!

  • Heart-pounding story — and thankful for the happy ending!

  • Juanita

    What a beautiful story, He truly makes beautiful things out of the dust, or in this case war fare. Thank you for showing us the hardship of where you were, as well as sharing the beauty of your relationship!

  • What a great story, Beth. Thank you for sharing!

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  • Saskia Wishart

    OH I can’t imagine the struggle of acknowledging your privilege in having to leave people behind in this situation. But also, thankful for the love that presented itself. Thanks for your story Beth!

    • Oh gosh, it’s something I still struggle and wrestle with, having gone on to work with other vulnerable people in unstable situations I’ve had the privilege of ability to leave at will. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop wrestling through it all, and I don’t ever want to, really. I want to be more and more aware of my own privilege, and I want to keep being uncomfortable in it. Such a hard thing! Anyway, thank you for reading and I really appreciate your comment!