Back to church in Bor—or not

St. Andrew’s Cathedral in a quieter moment

Last April, I was in Bor, South Sudan on the Sunday after Easter, the so-called “Low Sunday” because attendance (and the energy level) is generally a bit less than the previous Sunday. The announced attendance at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Bor that day was 1,249. It was, as many Dinka services are, a high-energy worship service (which I wrote about in this Christian Century article).

Bor has had a traumatic two months. Control of it switched hands several times between the government of South Sudan and a rebel force. The centre of town was destroyed. The Sudan activist John Prendergast recently traveled to Bor and filed a lengthy trip report, which is devastating to read—they drove down one empty street; when they came back a few hours later, there were bodies lined up along the road that had been found in the interim and had been brought out for burial in a mass grave.

I have been thinking particularly about St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the community I stayed with there. Some women priests and others who were killed have now been buried in a mass grave on the cathedral grounds. A huge percentage of the diocese has been displaced across the Nile River.

And it shows in church attendance. A friend of mine in Bor posted these photos on Facebook of last Sunday’s service.

1797425_653569138014596_1538836837_n 1891079_653567654681411_1607271920_nThere is essentially no one there. Whereas when I visited, there was not a spare seat or corner of bench, now you can see the sea of empty places.

1911777_653566378014872_292377038_nThe dean of the cathedral is a man named Thomas Agau Kur, who has been interviewed by several of the handful of western reporters who have made their way to Bor. He has been presiding over funerals at mass grave sites. But he told one that he is concerned about the dead bodies in outlying villages and the lack of priests there to perform the rites:

There’s no funerals!  Who’s there? The whole town is deserted, who can make the funerals?  I’ve been used to being in the place of the burials like this morning, where that mass grave of 134 are buried, and one is still being dug, so that to put the other people who are still being collected in the towns.

Another friend in Bor wrote to say that he estimated that only about half of the bodies in Bor had been collected and buried. So the task will continue for some time.

What to say about all this? At times, it seems the situation defies description or response. If nothing else, however, it is a reminder of the way in which Christians are people who called to enter into the pain of the world, so that together we may come to share in the resurrection—no matter how distant or faint that prospect may seem.

The Church Women of Bor: on remembrance

Last April, when I was in Bor, South Sudan, I stayed in the compound of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. One of the great things about staying in a cathedral—and I imagine this is as true of Canterbury as it is of Bor—is the community of people who live and work there.

These women are actually from Jalle, a community north of Bor, but you get the idea of what it was like at the cathedral

Among this community were a large number of women. For a variety of reasons, they had come to be part of the cathedral community. Some were clergy. Some were widows of the war. Some worked in the shop that was on the grounds of the cathedral. My encounters with them were a constant—and welcome—part of my stay at St. Andrew’s. I remember one woman who came and sat next to me and started drawing in the sand before us. Then she pointed at what she had drawn and started saying Dinka words. It took me a little while to realize but she was teaching me to count in Dinka, a task made more complicated by our complete lack of a common language. But I got some of it. There are other women whom I remember because of their fervent, passionate, and extemporaneous prayers every morning and evening at the daily office. All of them carried with them their long crosses, a symbol for them of the death-defeating power of Christ.

Now comes the distressing news that several people who sought shelter at St. Andrew’s during the recent violence in Bor have been killed. One report says “scores of female church workers.” My friends still in Bor have told me that 31 people in total were killed, among whom were five priests who also happened to be women. It was, as I understand, the mass grave of these people where the archbishop of Canterbury prayed on his recent visit to Bor.


As best I can understand it, this is what happened: when the violence around Bor began, many people—including most of the women in the cathedral community—fled across the Nile River to place called Awerial. But many others left their home areas and came to the cathedral because they thought it would be safer there. The bishop of Bor, Ruben Akurdit, actually warned this would happen in a phone conversation in December. When the violence again swept through Bor a few weeks later, the cathedral was targeted not—importantly—because it was a cathedral but because it was a place where people were gathered.

None of the women who were killed were women I knew when I stayed at the cathedral, but that hardly matters. Whatever the context and whatever the details, this is horrifying news and these are horrifying pictures.

But it is also important to note that these are not the only people who have been killed in this violence. My friends in the Diocese of Bor have told me that last Thursday—after the signing of an alleged peace agreement—there was violence in the village of Kolnyang outside Bor. Twenty-eight people were killed, including both the wife and the father-in-law of the Episcopal archdeacon of the area, Simon Deng Yahu. Rev. Simon was injured in the attack. The whereabouts of eleven other people—eight of them children—are currently unknown.

Two days later, last Saturday, two priests—Rev. Peter Yuiu Gai and  Rev. Isaiah Ayuen Akau—from Bor were traveling to Juba by road. Both were killed in an attack on the road, along with two lay people. Rev. Isaiah was the chair of the diocesan youth organization, which is called Jo Wo Liech.

I have a complex reaction to all this news—and, critically, how it is reported. I hate, hate, hate when South Sudan (or any other non-western country for that matter) only appears in the news when the words “rape,” “kill,” or “violence” can also be used. I want these stories to be reported. I want these people to be remembered. But I also want their ministry and lives to be remembered for far more than the way in which it ended. I don’t want us to be able to pass over this story with a glance—”oh, violent Africa”—without also understanding that these are people like you and me. Note that the story that started all this around the Anglican portion of the Internet doesn’t report precise numbers of people killed. What seems to matter is death, rape, violence, women.

I’m also uneasy with how this story can be used. The initial story comes from an organization dedicated to reporting stories about Christians around the world “under pressure for their faith.” This is a worthy goal, but I’m not sure the violence around Bor fits the bill. While it is true that Christians were killed in Bor, I don’t think it is true to say that they were killed because they were Christian. They were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way to address violence like this is to prevent the creation of these “wrong places.” And it’s not as if we weren’t warned. Bishop Ruben did talk about this back in December after all. Were we paying the kind of attention to Bor then that we pay now, after the fact?

Most of all, I worry about the tokenization of death. Why are we paying attention to these deaths at the cathedral and not the deaths in Kolnyang? Can we begin to grapple with the full scope of the suffering or do we only isolate it into a single incident because that is all we can handle?

Remembrance is not an easy task. No life—and no death—is simple and straightforward. The best tribute we can bring is to remember all who died in that way.

UPDATE: Archbishop Justin Welby preached about his visit to Bor to General Synod this week.

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.


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.

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.

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.


“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:


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.


News from Bor

Ruben Akurdit Ngong, bishop of Bor, April 2013
Ruben Akurdit Ngong, bishop of Bor, April 2013

The Anglican bishop in Bor, South Sudan is asking for prayers and assistance as his see city emerges from intense violence over Christmas.

I spoke on the phone this morning with the Rt. Rev. Ruben Akurdit Ngong, bishop of the Diocese of Bor in the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan. (Bishop Ruben was my host in Bor for most of the month of April.) The connection was poor and we only managed to talk for about ten minutes but I managed to gather some information.

Since December 19, Bishop Ruben has been seeking shelter in the UN compound in Bor, along with a reported 17,000 others. He reported that there is sufficient water in the compound but insufficient food.

South Sudan’s violence has enveloped Bor in recent days. Reports indicate that the SPLA/government forces pushed out forces that were loyal to a commander who defected from the SPLA. The only media reports I have seen from Bor so far are this disturbing video from Al Jazeera.

Bishop Ruben indicated that people were leaving the UN compound during the day and returning to see what had survived of their homes. St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Bor is reported to be still standing with minor damage.

The bishop’s primary concern was that as people look for assistance, they will be looking to the church. He expects that as people realize what they have lost, they may begin to gather near the cathedral. He is concerned that the diocese will be unable to meet people’s needs—food, water, shelter, and especially medicine—with its current resources. In many parts of South Sudan, people look to the church with expectation and hope because they know of the church’s international links with other Christians.

The challenge of offering relief and assistance is compounded by the fact that as rebels left Bor they took with them many of the vehicles in the town belonging to government officials, international organizations, and so forth. Bishop Ruben’s car is safe in the UN compound but he foresees a serious logistical challenge in making relief aid available.

The fighting has now moved north of Bor in areas around Baidit and Jalle, several hours north of Bor.

Women at the Anglican church in Baidit payam, April 2013
Women at the Anglican church in Baidit payam, April 2013
Women church leaders near Jalle, South Sudan, April 2013
Women church leaders near Jalle, South Sudan, April 2013

Separate fighting is also reported in Malakal, about a day’s journey north of Bor. I have been unable to be in touch with Bishop Hilary Garang Deng, who hosted me in September.

Bishop Ruben asked me to convey the message that he is grateful for the prayers and support people have already offered. I hope that the phone connection may improve in coming days and I may actually post some of his own comments, rather than paraphrases of them.

I have written before about the deep links between Bor, the church, and South Sudan’s civil wars.

UPDATE, Dec. 27: Bishop Hilary Garang of Malakal is briefly interviewed by the BBC: “There is no government functioning, there is no light, there is no water and people are fleeing, are going away. The town is divided in two.” More on that conversation—along with background on the significance of Malakal—is here.