Rumbek, South Sudan - Nuns in South Sudan know a thing or two about war. "We learned fast with the bullets whistling past our ears," said Sister Barbara Paleczny, chuckling at the memory of her younger self when she moved here five years ago.
Paleczny, 70, a teacher with the Rome-based NGO Solidarity with South Sudan, has lived in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. But it's the city of Malakal - where civil war has raged in recent months - that she calls home.
Malakal, an oil town on the banks of the White Nile, has changed hands between the government and rebel forces several times since December, according to the missionaries who are there. Each attack and counterattack has led to fresh atrocities, which the nuns have done their best to prevent. The sisters have confronted military chiefs about rape, negotiated for civilian protection amid rocket-propelled grenade fire, and held their ground when international humanitarians and peacekeepers left.
South Sudan's frontline nuns - mostly Europeans and Americans - can dig a foxhole and distinguish a loaded Antonov bomber from an unloaded one based on its engine noise alone. They are agile, witty and plain-clothed - wearing a nun's habit in South Sudan's sultry climate wouldn't work.
Coptic Christianity reached ancient Nubia in the second century but 500 years later came under pressure from Islam. Christian missionaries who arrived in the latter half of the 19th century were beaten and tortured, imprisoned, and forced to marry. They battled famine and plague as nurses and undertakers, and fought prostitution and slavery. Fifty-years ago, the Sudanese government expelled them. When independence was granted to the predominantly Christian south in 2011, the missionaries pinned their hopes on a lasting peace.
'We stayed through all the battles'
But two-and-a-half years later, their hopes are smashed. A split within South Sudan's ruling party boiled over into armed conflict shortly before Christmas 2013. The war pits rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar against President Salva Kiir. Experts agree that civilians have borne the brunt of the crisis - at least 10,000 people are believed to be dead.
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Paleczny described how for last Christmas Day, December 25, her colleague, an Irish woman named Sister Betty, had been saving homemade plum pudding for lunch. But the nuns were forced to spend the day hiding in a cupboard in the church as artillery and mortars rocked the ground around them. "It was like a heavy thunderstorm with rain as bullets, and thunder as mortars and bombs. The house shook," Paleczny said.
In the late afternoon, there was a lull in the fighting. The sisters stole out of the church's windowless closet and made it to the kitchen. They put the pudding on to cook - but no sooner had they set it alight with flaming whiskey and eaten it than the artillery began again.
Paleczny had survived a number of attacks on Malakal before the recent outbreak of violence. "We stayed through all the battles when the NGOs cleared out," she said. While the nuns carried on with their business - improving education, healthcare, journalism, agriculture - the NGOs sometimes took months to return.
Religious workers in South Sudan have weathered the war. One Italian priest, who asked to remain anonymous, has continued his pastoral work in the field despite the civil war. When the government advanced on rebel leader Machar's hometown of Leer, kicking off another brutal round of attacks and counterattacks, the priest's colleagues noticed that he had disappeared.
A few days later, the sturdy, grey-haired, 67-year old appeared in Nyal, roughly 80km to the south. He had waded through bulrushes on the edge of a swamp and spent two days in a canoe to get there. After arriving in Nyal, he set out on foot, walking for three hours a day to make his pre-Easter visit to some of the remotest communities in the country.
"It gives credibility if you root yourself in and stay with the locals, even in life-threatening situations," said Klaus Stieglitz, vice chairman of Sign of Hope, one of the few NGOs with a presence in Nyal. In the past, international aid workers evacuated during periods of insecurity because of stringent risk-assessments. Missionaries, however, often remained at their posts.
Atrocities and nightmares
Recently, Sister Paleczny agreed to leave Malakal. "What can I do for people hiding in this tiny room?" she asked herself. Soon after leaving Malakal, she began to have nightmares for the first time in her life. Her mind was re-enacting atrocities in her dreams.
"Anything I'd heard about, it became real and I saw it at night - the killings, the atrocities," she said. "Daily quiet time gives a chance for things inside to surface. People have been so traumatised. We must be aware that we can have secondary trauma."
Paleczny spent the first two months of this year teaching in Rumbek, a town yet to be touched by the fighting. Meanwhile, her fellow Sister Elena Balatti stayed on. Balatti belongs to the Comboni Missionaries, a powerful, elite unit of church workers whose history in South Sudan dates back nearly 200 years.
The Combonis have survived decades of bombing by the Sudanese government, both during the 20-year civil war and after. Balatti was unfazed even after hearing rumours that a counterattack by rebels was imminent. In her dispatch for the Comboni Mission, she wrote that roughly 100 of the town's most vulnerable people were taking shelter in her church compound - most of them elderly, disabled or women with young children. Balatti reassured the displaced people that she would not leave.
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Although a ceasefire agreement was signed in January, the deal is not reflected by the reality on the ground. On February 18, Balatti reported the White Army militia - comprised of members of the Nuer ethnic group - arrived in town.
People trying to escape on a truck were caught in the gunfire, hurling themselves from the vehicle and running to the church compound. Its walls provided protection from bullets, but only until 10am when the rebels breached the compound and started making demands of the sisters.
By evening, there were 30 gunmen in front of the cathedral searching for a pro-government fighter. One of the men readied his rocket-propelled grenade launcher and threatened to hit the church. The sisters stood their ground, doggedly negotiating for the protection of civilians. Early the next morning, Balatti and the other sisters gathered the civilians and left for the Presbyterian church, which was being used as a UN base, where they coordinated a rescue mission for those left behind.
One million displaced
Malakal has been hit by a number of atrocities over the past three months. Fighters have killed civilians en masse, allegedly raped girls as young as nine-years old, and reduced hundreds of homes and public buildings to ashes.
On March 19, the rebels announced the government had retaken the town. But whether they can hold onto it remains to be seen. The government, NGOs, UN peacekeepers and humanitarian staff are all being stretched to the limit. Nearly one million people have been displaced. The UN and its partners issued an appeal for $1.27bn to cope with the deepening humanitarian crisis, but aid efforts remain critically underfunded.
But Sister Paleczny is eager to get back to work, adamant that she will never retire and showing no fear of her own mortality. "I'm too old to die young," she said with a wry smile.