The long reach of war: from Bor to Nairobi to eviction

As a peace deal in South Sudan appears to take hold, more and more pictures are coming out of the areas most affected by the recent violence. This is the market in Bor, a town I spent time in last year.

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Most horrifying of all has been the pictures of a mass grave at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Bor, a church community I wrote about in a recent Christian Century article.

1466036_648052425232934_819014980_n(These photos—and many more—are on the Facebook page of someone I met in Bor last year. He has made them available to anyone to see.)

As I have been reading about the macro-level of the violence—number of people displaced, relief needs, etc.—I have been trying to stay in pretty close contact with a friend of mine in Bor. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call my friend S.

Like many other reasonably-educated Dinka, S.’s wife and children live in Nairobi, Kenya. They are part of the large and persistent Dinka diaspora that was created by the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the reasons it is so persistent is that people like S. decide that because the schools are better in Kenya, they would rather their children grow up there, even if it means being apart from them. S.’s job with the church meant that he could afford to pay rent for a very small place in Nairobi for his family.

In January, S. wrote to me say that he was “traumatized” by all that had happened. His mother and sisters had fled to the rural areas. His entire diocese had, essentially, been displaced. Significantly for S. and his family, the violence meant that he was no longer drawing an income from the church. He had no idea how he was going to care for his family.

This week, S. was in touch to say that his family’s landlord in Nairobi is threatening to evict them because they have been unable to pay the last three month’s rent. Unless he gets the money—about $650 in total—his family will have to move from Nairobi to Kakuma Refugee Camp. Kakuma is the large camp in arid and remote northwestern Kenya, which was founded in 1992 to care for the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan,” but now remains as a major community for people of lots of different nationalities. It is far inferior to living in Nairobi, however. It is isolated and cut off from the rest of the country and the schools are not nearly as good. It also means upending the lives of his children and cutting his wife off from her supportive social network.

On one level, S.’s story is familiar: bread-winner loses income, family displacement ensues. This happens as much in England and the United States as east Africa.

But on another level, S.’s story drives me crazy: THIS DIDN’T HAVE TO HAPPEN! The loss of income and the displacement is one microcosmic impact of violence that is the result of a struggle for control among member of the political class. If countries like South Sudan are to move forward, they need people like S.: educated, dependable, committed to their country and its future. In turn, people like S. need the same thing from their leaders. They need to be able to make long-term plans for the futures of their families. But they can’t do this if the very stability of the country is constantly in doubt.

An appeal from the heart

IMG_3731Bishop Abraham Yel Nhial of the Diocese of Aweil, South Sudan has written an open letter to South Sudan’s political leaders. It expresses some of the deep frustration that so many South Sudanese are feeling with their leaders.

A MESSAGE FOR SOUTH SUDAN POLITICAL LEADERS AND CITIZENS

I want to appeal to South Sudanese political leaders, that if you believe in God, you must also believe that killing is a sin. Can you believe in God and not believing that killing is a sin? You all the times go to church to pray, what really do you pray for? What does God means to you and your faith? I thought that you, our leaders in persons of President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar knew what God’s will is for you in your leadership as leaders of our beloved nation over the last eight years? It is very unfortunate that both of you are forgetting why God gave you this responsibility to lead this nascent and fragile young nation.

Brothers in Christ, our leaders of South Sudan; God’s will for you President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former Vice Dr. Riek Machar is to bring peace, reconciliation and forgiveness among yourselves and to our innocent civil population who are dying because of you. South Sudanese have dangerously broken apart under your leadership. Please turn back and see by yourselves the damages that a month long war has caused this nation. How many people have died? What reasons have they died for? Have they taken part in your political debate in Juba? Give peace a chance!

Juba, Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states have lost all citizens that you would want to vote for you tomorrow to unjustified war. What message will you tell the remnant? All the remnants and those who are directly or indirectly affected are left with terrible trauma and or physical damages.

President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar, if you turn to peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and national healing, both of you will be remembered as great sons of South Sudan in this generation and generations to come. Please think and make your decisions wisely!

All in all, allow God to change your hearts! Scripture says, “Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Colossians 3:14-15). We, all Christians of South Sudan have one mission. Our mission in this fighting in our beloved nation is to plant peace, forgiveness, and national healing where hatred and unjust killing had been planted.

I believed all Christians have peace to offer to our politicians who lost the vision and the mission of South Sudan as a nation. It is also our role as Christians to encourage our people who are silently grieving for the killing of their beloved ones to accept reconciliation and forgiveness as the only way forward so that their contrite hearts are inwardly reversed. I appeal to all Christians to stand strong through the storm of conflict with message of peace in our heart knowing that this conflict will come to pass. Blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Be a peacemaker!

Finally, we all are heartbroken because of the wrong direction our nation has taken and continues in it. As a servant of God, my advice to you all is to take charge of your life and take charge of the future of our nation; don’t allow being used by desperate politicians.

Above all, lets continue praying to God to bring divine intervene soon and restore back the South Sudan in just peace; our hope is in Jesus alone. Jesus is the true foundation of our unity without Him we will never be united.

Written by Rt. Rev. Abraham Yel Nhial

The Bishop of Diocese of Aweil

Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan (ECSS &S)

Northern Bahr el Ghazal State

Republic of South Sudan

Bishop Abraham’s ministry in the Diocese of Aweil features in chapter 15 of my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion. Bishop Abraham is also the author of a book of his own, Lost Boy No More.

Reports from South Sudan

I have returned from a time away to read of an apparent peace agreement in South Sudan. The violence may be ending but it is clear that it has done a tremendous amount of damage in a very short time.

Reporters are now making it to Bor, a place I spent some time in last year. One BBC reporter says that on his drive in from the airport he saw, “a scene of absolute devastation… You can see that every home, every hut, every shop has been looted or burned or emptied.” The market is now “a mangled mess of corrugated iron…. It is as though a giant inferno has swept through the entire town of Bor.”

Several reports and appeals for assistance are circulating from church leaders in South Sudan. One is from the Diocese of Malakal, whose bishop, Hilary Garang, I spoke to during the violence. The report from the diocese contains several pictures of the destruction to church property, as well as this report of the violence:

The town was divided into two zones and lawlessness began to overshadow the city and several shops were broke into, looted and burnt afterward. Some Government houses, NGOs offices also Government institutions were broke into, even the house of the State Governor was looted as well. Also the house of the Commissioner of police and many others were done the same. The Governor and most ministers run to Renk for their lives, where they stayed until the day the town was recaptured by the Government forces. All shops full of food items, different types of commodities; goods and everything were looted and later on it was set on fire….

Almost the whole population was affected terribly by this fighting, leaving everybody in critical and difficult position of all kind of needs……especially as the local Market was completely destroyed, and burnt down by the rebels…

Now, we will go without food for almost two months because there will be no safe route to bring us food from Juba since the Nile River passes through the rebels areas.

You can read the whole report from the Diocese of Malakal here.

A second report is from the Diocese of Bor, whose bishop, Ruben Akurdit, I also spoke with during the violence. This report also contains pictures of the damage.

In Bor, the whole population is displaced into different places i.e Awerial County in Lake State, swampy part of Bor County call “Toich” and others in the forest east of Bor town. All are sheltered under the tree, lacking food and clean water, subjected to dangerous insect and snakes as well as diseases. All are sleeping on bar ground because none of them run with the luggage. While those in the swampy area are in danger of the water bone diseases for they spend most of their time hiding from this crisis in water. The only dry places they use are the small Ant-hills in toich and it is also home to some dangerous snake. The condition is very bad. It requires international intervention from God fearing people to provide some basic needs to the victims wherever they are in Awerial, Juba, and Swampy part of Bor County and in the Forest east of Bor County including those who flew to the border town such as Nimule and Yei.

You can read the whole report from the Diocese of Bor here.

It is good news that some sort of peace agreement has apparently been reached—but the damage done by this violence is lasting and far-reaching and South Sudanese continue to need prayers and support as their country again fades from the headlines.

Sharing the suffering on the way to resurrection

Some months ago, the radio show This American Life profiled Meron Estefanos, a journalist who gets drawn into a web of Eritrean hostages in the Sinai peninsula. Beginning with one call, Estefanos eventually ends up devoting a huge portion of her days to talking to hostages who have been captured by people-smugglers and are given mobile phones to call their families and ask them to pay ransom. Along the way, these hostages are left in horrific conditions.

When I heard the program, it was for me an example of Christlike action in the world. One lesson of the Incarnation is that Jesus comes to share our lives with—Emmanuel means “God with us” after all. In the crucifixion, Jesus shares the ultimate moment of suffering and agony—death—with humans. When people are suffering, we can be confident that God in Christ is in their midst because God in Christ has experienced the worst the world has to offer. When Estefanos calls these hostages, she is, in a sense, incarnating herself among them and sharing in their crucifixion.

Christians, therefore, are people who are called to share in the suffering that is present in this world. In the last few weeks, I have been acutely aware of the suffering in South Sudan in part because I’ve been calling various friends there to ask how they are. I want to emphasize that my few phone calls and blog posts are not even close to the total devotion shown by someone like Estefanos, not to mention Christ. But I’ve continued to call and to post out of the conviction that it is important both that we have some clear idea of what is going on in South Sudan—in all its difficulty—and also that people in South Sudan know that we are aware of their challenges. When St. Paul writes, “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it,” (I Cor. 12:26), he is not speaking metaphorically. He really means it.

(I am also acutely aware of my own shortcomings in this regard. I know next-to-nothing about the suffering in Syria, for instance, or in the Central African Republic. But I hope that the full body of Christ around the world may hold the full weight of suffering in the world and that I have one small part to play in that.)

I have been reflecting on all this because I am aware that my phone calls will be on hiatus for the next little while. I have a long-planned trip coming up, which will occupy all my time and render the relatively inexpensive way I’ve worked out to call South Sudan inoperable. Does that mean I can just flip off this sharing of suffering? I think not. There are ways in prayer and action and advocacy to continue to share the suffering of our sisters and brothers.

We should finally note that sharing suffering is not the only thing Jesus did. His crucifixion ended in his resurrection. Following Christ, Christians are truly incarnate in the world, sharing the suffering of those who suffer, but all so that we may push and poke and prod and work towards the resurrected life to which Christ is calling us. Glory awaits—in this Christians can trust, even and especially when it seems almost entirely obscured.

In coming days, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan will be releasing a proposal for relief, action, and advocacy in response to the violence. I encourage you to keep an eye out for out asa we listen to our sisters and brothers and move towards resurrection.

Dinka Christianity: an exilic faith

It was not planned this way but the Christian Century this week publishes an article of mine about Christianity among the Dinka people of South Sudan, from the stuttering and failed efforts of Anglican missionaries in the first half of the twentieth century through two civil wars (and more recent violence) and into the vibrant faith it is today:

The Dinka church is a church of exile. When the civil war began there were only five Dinka congregations stretched along 150 miles of the Nile’s east bank. They were all that remained of the British Anglican missionary presence among the Dinka in the early and mid-1900s. Today that same 150-mile stretch is home to more than 300 Anglican congregations (and a handful of others in other denominations), not to mention innumerable preaching centers in cattle camps along the Nile. There are two dioceses in the area and plans to create more. Virtually every one of the villages on the roads leading out of Bor has a church—often a mud-and-thatch building.

The Christianity of today’s Dinka emerged out of the sorrow and deprivation of refugee life, a time of despair that led many refugees to turn to the church for support, nurture and growth. It’s no accident that the wooden church pews came back with the refugees. Today the cathedral in Bor is a center of South Sudanese life. On Sunday mornings the building pulses and shakes with the energy of up to 1,500 worshipers. The same is true in the churches scattered throughout the region.

Many of the people in Bor are now displaced, of course, by the violence of the last few weeks. I find myself wondering what role this faith plays in their displacement.

The article tells, in part, the story of Mary Alueel Garang Nongdit, who as a young, uneducated convert to Christianity began composing hymns of great theological depth and profundity.

The Dinka hymnal is a rich repository of theological reflection on many subjects, including the relationship between war and faith. Over a third of the hymns were composed by women, a remarkable achievement in a culture that traditionally has not valued women’s musical contributions. One of them, Mary Alueel Nongdit, began composing hymns shortly after her baptism in 1984. Her hymns are among the longest, most complex and most popular. They have a richness of expression and theological complexity that is unique.

In one hymn Alueel Nongdit writes that “the death that has come is revealing the faith”—an appropriate sentiment for a people who converted to Christianity during a war. She says that the hymn encourages the people to look to God. “When you are crying, instead of crying just divert that crying to prayers. Turn back to God and cry to him. He will see you. He will rescue you. You are not alone.”

Alueel Nongdit also wrote about the love of God and the ways that love can be expressed. In the book of Hosea, she says, God’s love is shown in ways that might not at first seem loving. The Dinka had a similar experience: it was only in the destruction of war that God’s love was revealed to her people. The Dinka were “a stiff-necked people,” she says, but “God cannot get tired. If there is somebody whom he likes, even if the darkness buries you, if God loves you, he can dig you out!”

Although I met Mary Nongdit after I had finished drafting my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, this article gives you a taste of the kind of stories that are at the heart of that book. Anglicans around the world live some incredible lives of faith. It’s time to learn more about them.

Speaking for oneself

Bishop Ruben Akurdit of Bor continues to make the media rounds via his mobile phone. Today, the British channel ITN spoke to him for a story. There is little that he adds that wasn’t in yesterday’s BBC interview, though this line grabbed me:

There is no supplies, completely. Nobody is giving supplies.

Delivering relief supplies to South Sudan is challenging at the best of times. (I was involved in one such trip once.) But in a war zone, it is even more complicated.

The footage in the story, first from Awerial and then from Bor is disturbing. It shows some of the destruction I was writing about a few days back.

I was struck in the story by the contrast between the rather opulent surroundings of the peace negotiations in Addis and the footage of displaced people in Awerial. Perhaps the peace negotiators could be given the same amount of food as the people in Awerial are getting?

One of the questions I ask in my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, is how we can create a situation in which the voices of all our sisters and brothers in Christ can be genuinely heard. Ruben is a bishop. He has a better chance than many South Sudanese in having his voice heard. Still, international media coverage of South Sudan (both before this current violence and before) tends to overlook the church, even though the church is the single most important social institution in the country. I’m grateful for interviews like this in which Ruben and others (such as Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, who spoke to the BBC yesterday) can speak for themselves.

As the coverage continues, however, I hope that interviewers will begin to ask these church leaders questions about topics other than how awful everything is. Archbishop Daniel chairs a national reconciliation commission, the need for which is even more acute now. Church leaders have been consistent in articulating a vision for the future of the whole country that is hopeful and realistic. It’s time for international media to start reporting on that as well.

Still, the frequency with which church leaders keep popping up in news report testifies to the simple fact that when everyone else leaves—including U.S. Embassy staff today—the church remains on the ground. We should not underestimate the importance of that.

One final note: the ITV report uses my photograph of Bishop Ruben. They didn’t ask permission but I don’t mind. Still, it might be time to trot out a new photo. Here’s Bishop Ruben, with his predecessor Nathaniel Garang at the Bor airport in April 2013.

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“The people are confused… Bor is in anarchy.”

The BBC continues its reporting on the South Sudan conflict by interviewing Anglican bishops. Today, they talked to Ruben Akurdit Ngong, bishop of Bor, though now in Juba. (Last week, they interviewed Hilary Garang Deng, the bishop of Malakal.)

The interview begins at 6:50 and goes to 8:20. I transcribed some of what he had to say.

It is really terrible, it’s horrible. You cannot even describe it. Two days, we came out of the UNMISS compound and it seemed to be alright. But suddenly things turned around and we heard gunshots and the rebels running towards Bor town. So everyone started fleeing in different directions. They ran into the bush. Some came into the town. Some went to the River Nile, others towards Lakes State and Juba. The people are confused because they see there is no longer any way to receive protection because the government and soldiers are engaged in confronting the rebels and the rebels are advancing so the civilian population becomes vulnerable. It’s a war zone. You find dead bodies everywhere. When you are in Bor town, you move around closing your nose because of the smell. Bor is in anarchy because the government is not in control. The rebels are not in control. What they are doing is fighting each other. There is no system, no way that help can come to the civilian population. There is no way even to get medicines to the vulnerable. It is just a really terrible situation.

“Control” of Bor (I use the quotation marks because of what Bishop Ruben had to say about anarchy) appears to have changed hands at least three times since the violence began. First, the town was taken by “rebels” and many residents of Bor—including the bishop—fled to the UN compound just outside town. Then the government forces took Bor back and many people came out of the UN compound. That is when I first spoke to Bishop Ruben.

Then, over the weekend and in the first part of this week, an army of young men gathered outside the town. Many people, including the bishop, fled, increasing the number of displaced people across the river in Awerial. Now, there are disputes about who controls Bor. Based on what Bishop Ruben has to say, it seems no one does. As I have written previously, the slow and patient work of building a new country has been suddenly undone.

Diocese, displaced

A major aspect of the violence in South Sudan has been the huge internal displacement of people. The traditional definition of a refugee is someone who seeks safety across an international border. These people are refugees, but in their own country.

UN map

This week, I have been trying to find out more about the largest number on that map, the 76,000 in Awerial, which is an area of the Diocese of Yirol. As the map shows, Awerial is not far from Bor but the Nile River separates the two. That being said, there is a long history of links between the communities across the river—for trade, for grazing cattle, and to flee violence.

After the 1991 “Bor Massacre,” for instance, a huge number of people did exactly what they’ve done in the last few weeks: flee to Awerial and points west, some as far as Western Equatoria. Others resettled permanently: there is still a large Dinka community in Nimule.

I have had no luck in getting through to people in Awerial itself—phone links seem pretty bad—but I have managed to talk to others in South Sudan who have. It seems a fair guess that among those 76,000 are a goodly number of members of the Diocese of Bor. At least one archdeacon from Bor as well as one rural dean from the diocese are currently displaced to Awerial. Given the strength of the Anglican church in Bor, there are likely many others as well.

Some international media have managed to report from Awerial (the New York Times, the BBC) but it has become clear in my phone calls that we should not think this map tells the whole story. There are many people who have fled to rural communities or into the largely uninhabited grazing areas. These people are even further from the limited relief available in Awerial.

I have written before about how displacement has been a huge shaping factor in the South Sudanese church. Part of the experience of displacement for many South Sudanese, as I noted, is the feeling of isolation and disconnection from the rest of the church, both in South Sudan and around the world. Seventy-six thousand people does not approach the scale of the displacement in 1991—then, it was estimated that seventy percent of the east bank Dinka population was killed or displaced—but it is a lot of people for a part of the world that is rural and remote. I hope we are soon able to learn more about what is going on there and what it means to be the church in this situation.

UPDATE: I just came across this 46-second audio clip describing the conditions these 76,000 displaced people are dealing with in Awerial.

Upending “the slow and laborious task of years”

As I have been reading about South Sudan’s violence over the last few weeks, I have thought often of this quotation attributed to Winston Churchill:

To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.

The fate of the town of Bor exemplifies this. Bor had a difficult history during Sudan’s long civil war. But since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Bor has been trying to emerge from this past. When I was there in April, there was a good-sized market and several new buildings that were under construction, including at least two banks. Most significantly of all, I kept meeting young people who had been forced to flee the area during the civil war, been educated abroad, and were now returning, eager to go to work in their new country in which they took great pride. Bor and Jonglei state in general remained a very poor, deeply underdeveloped place but these, I thought, were signs of a very modest, incipient “peace dividend”—the “slow and laborious” building of a new country.

Even before the recapture of Bor by the “White Army” in recent days, I had been hearing reports of the wholesale destruction of the market. Then I saw online this picture of one of Bor’s banks:

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Most significant of all, however, has been the human cost. A friend of mine in Bor recently sent me this brief, devastating message:

I am Traumatized.

My Mam and sister are in Toich {Swamps area} hiding from Nuer fighters. She is over seventy in age. I have no way to help her. May God protect her life.

Secondly, My family is in Nairobi. They will have no help from me this month and on. Now I do not know what will happened to them from Landlord and where to get food. The only hope is that God is the provider.

This friend is one of those who was educated abroad and returned to Jonglei after the peace deal. He is capable, committed, and wants to see a successful South Sudan. Like many other people, he has left his family abroad where the schools are better but has been sending his salary back to them to care for them. Meanwhile, he has also been reconnecting with his family in his rural village and seeing how he can support them. These are exactly the kinds of things that need to happen if South Sudan is to be a success. But now—as this message makes clear—all that has been upended by the “thoughtless act” of the recent violence. He won’t be paid a salary. He can’t contact his family.

I have little doubt that if peace were to return to Bor and Jonglei, the “slow and laborious” work of building the new country would continue. The bank, I am sure, will one day re-open. The market will be re-built. But if you were my friend, you have to ask yourself, “Why bother? Why not just move back abroad, find a job, and live with my family there?” Yet it is precisely these people the country needs if it is to be a success.

Perhaps the most depressing thing I have read appeared in an article in this morning’s New York Times. Referring to an eventual peace deal between Salva Kiir and Riak Machar, Jok Madut Jok said:

The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for. No one will be responsible for their deaths.

Responsibility. I recognize that in my friend—though sadly not in his leaders.

More news from Bor

Daniel Kon Malwal, the assistant to Bishop Ruben Akurdit of Bor, sent this e-mail this morning to the Anglican Peace and Justice Network:

I have been away from communication online for long because of the fighting in Bor that make me flee to the village of Werkok. When the SPLA retook the Town on December 25, 2013 I came back to Town. However, the news of Lau Nuer Youth coming to attack town came and alarmed the civil population who were back to the town. All people deserted the Town and I with the Bishop Akurdid took our journey to Juba on December 29, 2013.

Nevertheless, this morning the Lau Nuer youth took the control of Bor town after fighting with SPLA. Most of the Diocese of Bor Congregation is displaced and all villages of the archdeaconry of Baidit, Tong, Mathiang are all burned down by the Lau Nuer Youth. Majority of the people are under trees in Awerial County of Lake State [that is, they have crossed to the West Bank of the Nile River]. Other population fled to the area West of Baidit Payam and are under threat of attack from Lau Nuer Youth any time from today onward.

We are working on the document that will cover details about the incident with the Bishop Akurdid and we shall send it within 4to 5 days. There is still fighting, Now Bor Town is under Lau Nuer Youth, the next step will be on their way to Juba and government forces will fight them. The situation is bad. God bless You!

In Christ

Rev. Daniel Kon Malual

the Secretary in the Office of Bishop for the Diocese of Bor

As the violence in South Sudan has unfolded, the key parallel in my mind has been similar events in 1991. Then, a split in the SPLA led by Riak Machar, led to what is remembered as the “Bor Massacre.” An army of Nuer youth marched on Bor, killing thousands of Dinka and creating an international Dinka diaspora that persists today. A key difference between 1991 and 2013, however, seems to be that civilians in Bor and elsewhere have had more warning of the attack and have been able to flee. But the lesson remains the same: acts of mass violence like this can have reverberations decades later.