This morning, I spoke with Bishop Abraham Nhial of the diocese of Aweil in South Sudan. (I have visited with Abraham several times, including a visit to the critical Abyei region.) When South Sudan’s violence broke out two weeks ago, he was in Kenya visiting his family and was unable to return home. Instead, he travelled to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya, a place he lived for nearly a decade in the 1990s.
Kakuma is part of the archipelago of Sudanese communities in Kenya. One major impact of Sudan’s second civil war was the creation of an international southern Sudanese diaspora. Hundreds of thousands sought refuge both within Sudan and without, in camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and elsewhere. From there, some were resettled in places like Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Although the end of the war in 2005 induced some people to return, many thousands still remain abroad. Because Kenya is more stable and has better schools than South Sudan, many South Sudanese send their children to school in Kenya because nothing in South Sudan is able to match the quality. In addition to Kakuma, many Sudanese have moved south and there are now fair-sized Sudanese communities in places like Eldoret, Nakura, and Nairobi.
Bishop Abraham reports that there are new arrivals in Kakuma, fleeing South Sudan’s violence in a wearingly familiar pattern. It is difficult to ascertain just how many new people have arrived but some, he said, had come all the way from Bor, which surprised me given the distance.
The church remains a significant presence in Kakuma and Abraham’s purpose in visiting was to meet with church leaders and church members. During the 1990s, there were frequently significant tensions between the Dinka and Nuer communities in Kakuma. Although the ongoing violence in South Sudan is primarily political in nature, it does have ethnic elements—often as a result of leaders who find benefit in stirring up such tensions—and there was concern such tensions could spill over into Kenya again. Abraham met with Christians in Kakuma from several ethnic groups to teach about the ministry of reconciliation that belongs to all Christians and to encourage them to refrain from violence. Two other bishops who were in Kenya are doing the same with other Sudanese communities. To date, such efforts appear to have been successful and those eager to replicate South Sudan’s violence in Kenya have been thwarted.
Abraham also reported that he has been in touch with his diocese and “all seems OK.” He is unable to return there currently because flights have been cancelled. Based on what he had heard—and this is confirmed by all the news reports—the main areas of the country that are affected remain a swathe from Bor through Malakal to Bentiu. Abraham also said that unlike the previous civil war, it does not seem as if civilians are being deliberately targeted. Small victories.
These, of course, are second-hand reports. What was important for me about the phone call was the reminder of the church’s work among South Sudanese in Kenya. It is a model of the kind of small-scale, grassroots reconciliation work that will never grab headlines but yet remains of critical importance in preventing the spread of violence—and, we hope, of working towards a durable peace.
UPDATE, 31 December: This e-mail from Bishop Abraham just came in, in which he describes his visit to Kakuma:
I would like to inform you all that I arrived safely today to Nakuru where my family live and I thank you all for your prayers. The mission was successful because of your prayers, we had celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ at Zone Parish where more than 3,000 Christians attended the church.
On Friday December 27, 2013, I met with pastors from Nuer and Dinka, who are serving South Sudanese people in the Camp. These pastors has demonstrated their call as peacemakers and ambassadors for Christ for reconciliation as they preached the message of peace, forgiveness, and unity of our people in their Churches. They promised me that they will keep the unity of our people regardless of what politicians are doing now in our beloved nation. We refused to be divided. We are Christians and we are one before God. I am proud of them.
However, these pastors need urgent training on peace building, mediating and reconciliation for them to be more effective in the Camp and back home. They are willing to go back to South Sudan as a team to preach the message of peace, unity and love to our people.
If your organization or a church is willing to come to train them or sponsor the training they will appreciate it very much. Also, today in Nairobi the Dinka and Nuer pastors, community and youth leaders are meeting to work together as peacemakers.
Again, thank you all for your prayers and advocacy work you all are carry on for your brothers and sisters in Christ in South Sudan. We appreciate every thing you do to stop this fighting. Happy New Year 2014. God bless you all.
Yours in Christ’s service,
Bishop Abraham Nhial
(Some of the photos in this post have been collected from private individuals in the course of my doctoral research. Please do not use them without first contacting me. Bishop Abraham features in my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, which contains much more about the history of the church in South Sudan.)