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An American family caring for 10 orphans in South Sudan were due to fly out of the country Friday night and leave the children they were fighting to take with them behind at a United Nations camp.
As American citizens they are free to leave the country which has exploded into violence over the last several weeks, but the family told NBC News on Friday that a local governor said the orphans would not be allowed to go with them.
Speaking through tears, 54-year-old mother Kim Campbell said they had no other options. "This is our last-ditch attempt," she said over the phone from an airport in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.
"We said we would not leave without the orphans and we spent 10 days exhausting ourselves, trying to crack the code of what we can do to release these children," Campbell said. "We are struggling to fight feelings of failure right now."
The Campbell family and all of the children arrived at the makeshift U.N. camp on Christmas Day as fighting among the country's presidential guards last month spiraled into widespread ethnic violence, threatening their compound in the South Sudanese city of Malakal. When they tried to leave the compound, they came under heavy gunfire and had to turn back and make a second attempt later, she said.
Since then they have been struggling to find a way to take the orphans out of the country, but with food becoming scarce and violence still a threat, Campbell said they would have to leave without them. She said they planned to meet with other missionary groups in Kenya and from there they would try to arrange an aid drop into the area.
She, along with husband Brad, 46, and American daughters Katie Talbott, 23, and Cassidy Talbott, 16, planned to catch a flight to the Kenyan capital Nairobi on Friday night local time (eight hours ahead of ET).
The orphans are now waiting at the camp for the Campbells' return and are being cared for by South Sudanese volunteers from their orphanage. The orphans are aged 6 to 16, and include a boy of around 15 who has one arm.
The Campbells are from Omaha, Nebraska, but in 2012 they sold their home and all their possessions and moved to South Sudan to set up the orphanage.
Their missionary life was torn apart when political tensions in the world's youngest country erupted into violence and then quickly spiraled into ethnic fighting. More than 1,000 have been killed and nearly 200,000 displaced, according to the U.N.
The Associated Press reported that South Sudan's warring factions held preliminary meetings Friday ahead of the official start of peace negotiations in neighboring Ethiopia, mediators said.
Kim said the family did not have a specific plan in terms of which agencies they would contact when they reach Nairobi, but said "we believe the right people are coming together."
Asked how optimistic the family was, she added: "I was really down yesterday. But I know that God is really big and I am believing he knows where these children are going to end up."
The family had initially tried to secure a safe passage out of the country for the orphans. This plan was thwarted when the permit office they needed was bombed and looted of its computers.
They then turned to the local governor. But he starkly informed them that, as the orphans were South Sudanese, they would be dealt with by South Sudanese officials, Campbell said. The governor told them the orphans would not be allowed to move to another peaceful part of the country, let alone aboard.
At one point there were 20,000 people in the U.N. camp and Campbell said food had become very scarce. She said the U.N. personnel there had "emptied out their cupboards" to provide for the orphans.
Battles between South Sudan's warring factions raged close to the camp’s perimeter, and on several occasions the compound’s sirens sent the inhabitants running to makeshift shelters.
Campbell said she had ordered her American daughters to leave on Thursday after a flight left Malakal with other Americans -- but they refused.
"They are incredible," Campbell said. "As a mother I insisted that they go ahead on the flight to safety. But they refused and said, 'We all stay, or we all go.'"
On Wednesday Freddie Power, a close friend of the family and president of the North Carolina-based Keeping Hope Alive ministry which is sponsoring them, said more than $6,000 had been raised in the U.S. for the orphans' welfare. She said the money was being held until it could be transferred safely.
On Tuesday, the White House said it remained "deeply concerned" about the fragile security situation in South Sudan.