South Sudan, four years on

It is July 9. Four years ago on this day, I was in Juba, South Sudan as the newest nation in the world was inaugurated. After decades of civil war, South Sudan at last had achieved its independence. It was a day that was palpably full of hope, expectation, and wonder.IMG_3318.JPGIMG_3322.JPG

Now, those memories seem like a terrible joke. In the intervening four years, South Sudan has fought brief battles with the north. Most cataclysmically, since December 2013, parts of the country have been consumed by civil war.

I am in the process of writing finishing a dissertation about South Sudan during its earlier civil war, the one between 1983 and 2005. What has struck me most powerfully in these last 18 months is the sheer number of parallels between the conditions on the ground now and what was reported two or three decades ago. You would have thought we could have moved past this but, no, unfortunately, it seems we cannot.

When this latest round of violence began, I had a lengthy series of posts reporting what I had heard in phone calls and e-mails from friends across South Sudan. In time, I ended that series not because I stopped caring but because it didn’t seem as if many people cared. I have continued to stay in touch with friends and church colleagues in South Sudan and abroad, continued to attend conferences related to the matter, and continued to keep the country and its churches in my prayers. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s spectacularly inadequate leaders participate in periodic “peace negotiations” in some of Africa’s finest hotels, make all the right noises—and then fail to effect any improvement in the suffering of their people.

So where does that leave us now, “us” here meaning people who don’t live in South Sudan but feel a great attachment to its people and its churches and so desperately want to see them succeed? On the fourth anniversary of independence, three thoughts come to mind:

  • First, while it is true that the effects of the violence in South Sudan are horrific, it’s not the case that these effects are equally spread across the entire country. The entire country is not equally consumed by civil war. This is important, if for no other reason than that we should not write off the entire place as beyond our help.
  • Second, the causes of this violence are deeply, profoundly complex. It has to do with the prevalence of small arms in the country, existing patterns of religious leadership, opportunities for young men, the lack of infrastructure in the country, and a whole lot else. One part of this is the division between two major ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, a division we should note that is largely due to policies pursued by the British colonial government. It is this division, however, that tends to get all the attention.
  • Finally, at one conference I attended, there was much despair about the present situation. But one person who has been involved in South Sudan for a very long time said at the end of his presentation that his grounds for hope came from the possibilities of working with and through small-scale, local institutions. He had largely given up on the existing national leadership and national institutions, but he did think there was lots of potential for working at a more grassroots level in various places of the country. He didn’t say this at the time but I immediately thought, “Oh, the churches.”

Speaking of the churches, many Christian leaders—under the leadership of the Anglican archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul—have come together to launch a National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation. One focus of this work has been training people for reconciliation work at a grassroots level. There are two short videos about this work.

It is very easy to lose hope when thinking about South Sudan. Christians, however, believe that new life follows moments of death and despair. The reconciling work of the church—however limited, local, and small-scale—remains the grounds of whatever hope I continue to have.

Stuck in the middle in South Sudan: on reconciliation and peace

IMG_3295Daniel Deng Bul, the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, and leader of South Sudan’s National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation, has written an important letter outlining the efforts of so many to bring about peace in South Sudan.

I have uploaded the letter here so that you can read it in its full, but here are a few excerpts that struck me.

Why is it so important at this point to raise an independent voice for peace and reconciliation? The war is dividing and polarising the people and communities of our country. The middle ground is eroded. When you listen to one side you are criticized as biased towards one or the other. Each side wants you to be with them. And if you are not with them you are against them. Tribal allegiance is expected and people labeled accordingly. This makes it very difficult for people and leaders to stand in the middle and reach out to both sides equally. Motives are questioned, actions are doubted and words are twisted. Reaching out to both sides requires courage and commitment to the ideal of a healed nation. This is why being independent and united is so important. Standing in the middle is necessary to reach both sides and to bridge the divide between people and political leaders, between divided communities. We serve the people and we serve our leaders. We are inspired by the courage of our people and guided by our belief in the Word of God. Independence does not mean you are against the government or the Opposition, against one or the other community. Independence for the [Reconciliation] Platform means we can listen to everyone equally, openly and inclusively to bring the voices of all the people together to advance peace and reconciliation.

To be a reconciler is to be stuck in the middle of deeply conflicted situations. I am reminded of the Latin word for priest, “pontifex,” which means bridge-builder. The trouble with being a bridge, however, is that you get walked all over. It is that holy work of bridge-building to which Archbishop Daniel and others are dedicated.

Reconciliation is not just about a cessation of hostilities between warring parties but involves actors from across society.

To start the journey for our healing, we have to come together and speak with one voice against this war that is tearing our nation and our people apart. The Platform is reaching out to all constituencies and groups. The role of women, youth, religious communities, traditional leaders, government and opposition and many more are recognized as equally essential if we want to build a broad coalition of people to stand up against the war and urge our leaders to find and implement solutions that stop the war and begin the healing and development we all need. The Scriptures have countless calls for us to be of the same mind and consider others better than ourselves.

Be of the same mind toward one another… And let us consider one another to provoke to love and to good works (Romans 12.16; Hebrews 10.24, NKJV)

In all that is happening in the world—you can read about the work of an Anglican priest in Iraq here—it is easy to lose sight of South Sudan, particularly as the onset of the wet season leads to a necessary diminution of violence (though not of suffering). But the need for reconciliation remains acute and we can continue to pray and support the work of Christians there.

News from Abyei

Here’s a picture I took a year ago:

That’s Bishop Abraham Yel Nhial, bishop of the Diocese of Aweil in Sudan. I took the picture when Abraham and I were in Abyei, the contested border region between north and south, which is part of his diocese. The bridge behind him was destroyed in attacks in May 2011 by a northern-allied militia. Its destruction meant, at the time of our visit, that Abraham was unable to visit all parts of his diocese, including the town of Abyei, the centre of the region. Instead, we went to Agok, a town in the southern part of the region where a huge number of people displaced from Abyei had sought refuge, many in a church school.

I just heard from Abraham that he made it to Abyei, this time with the Archbishop of Sudan, Daniel Deng Bul. They have only just returned and have—to date—a very short report to share. Nonetheless, it is devastating to read:

An Episcopal Church of Sudan delegation led by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul has just returned from a visit to Abyei. They were shocked at what they saw. The town is deserted apart from “a few stragglers”, and has been completely destroyed. One eye-witness from the delegation described it as reminiscent of World War II photos of the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities. Only the mosque was untouched. The Catholic church, Catholic and ECS schools, boreholes, administrative offices, government houses, power station, shops, even the latrines, have all been destroyed. The UN forces are perceived as being biased against the Dinka. There appear to be no humanitarian agencies working there, as apparently it is consider part of Sudan and they do not work cross-border. A huge number of refugees from Abyei, perhaps as many as 100 thousand, are in Agok with very few basic services. The people simply ask for what is their right under the Abyei Protocol of the CPA, agreed by both parties: a referendum in which they can choose their destiny.

The Church will be releasing a full report, with pictures and video, in the near future.

Details to follow. In the meantime, an item for your prayers.

South Sudan, one year on

One year ago today, I was in Juba, South Sudan for the independence celebrations of the world’s newest country. It was a huge event, and I shall not soon forget it, even if my friend here was holding his flag in the wrong spot.

It’s been a hard first year for South Sudan. Not only are there serious unresolved issues in its relationship with what remains of Sudan, it has been beset by inter-tribal violence, plagued by corruption, and unable to address the many pressing social needs of its people.

But when people ask me, as they often do, what I think about South Sudan, my reply always includes the lines, “I have a lot of hope for the future.” And I do. My visits to Sudan have convinced me that the potential in that country is huge.

I am particularly convinced of this because of the continued and powerful witness of the church in Sudan for peace and reconciliation. When Jonglei state was plagued by inter-tribal violence earlier this year, the government turned to Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. He negotiated a peace deal that has held and has created the space necessary for long-term peace-building to get underway. Archbishop Daniel and his Catholic counterpart Paulino Lukudu Loro have issued a statement on their continued hopes for the future of South Sudan.

So when you read the truly horrific news that the continued violence along the border is producing another “Lost Boys”-type situation or the awful conditions in some new refugee camps, I hope that a gasp of horror won’t be your only response. On this July 9—and every other day—I hope you’ll join in prayers for this new nation, read the letter from the archbishops, and think about ways in which you and your church can support our sisters and brothers in Christ in South Sudan.

Together, perhaps, the enthusiasm displayed by this young man can soon become a reality shared by all.

House of Commons Report Calls for More Support for Episcopal Church of Sudan

From time to time on this blog, I go on about how in many parts of the world, it is the church that is the main organization in society able to deliver goods and services to the people. I’ve found this to be true, for instance, in South Sudan where the weak government struggles to make its presence felt while the church is in every last village and community.

The church isn’t perfect but at least it’s there and provides a basic sort of social infrastructure. It was a view best summarized for me by a Sudanese priest who told me last summer: “We are the church. We are always on the ground!” Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, western media seem incapable of understanding what a different role the church plays in a non-western context.

There’s a new report from the British Parliament’s International Development Committee that reaches this same conclusion and calls for its own Department for International Development to be more intentional about partnering with the church.

This is particularly true on education, say the report’s authors:

When allocating funds for its development projects, DFID should as far as possible seek to strengthen and complement the limited internal capacity that already exists within South Sudan. We have some concerns that DFID’s decision to fund the United Nations rather than the Episcopal Church of Sudan to deliver its school construction programme misses an opportunity to do so.

The same is true for the important work of peace-building and reconciliation that is going on in South Sudan. The report highlights the role people like Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan have played in negotiating peace in some very difficult situations:

It will clearly take time to build the capacity of the GRSS, army and police to take on primary responsibility for peacekeeping and mediation. In the meantime, DFID must not disregard the constructive role that the Sudan Council of Churches can play in this area.

Reports like these are easily lost in the swirl of government paperwork and I don’t expect any major changes in policy. And it’s worth noting that the report has a bleak outlook on the immediate future in the world’s newest nation—that is probably the major take-away here. Still, it’s nice when the government can start pointing out what has long been obvious to all involved, and maybe begin to shape policy in new directions.

The Cross in our Midst in Holy Week

There are many seemingly intractable situations in South Sudan but one that has gotten a fair bit of attention recently is the ongoing violence in Jonglei state. As we sit in this Holy Week, there is an update on the situation, in the form of a report from Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and a lead negotiator in Jonglei.

The Committee feels that there is a new momentum for peace in Jonglei State at all levels, from the grassroots right up the national government. We appeal to all stakeholders within Jonglei and South Sudan to put aside their differences and take this opportunity to work together for peace, reconciliation and tolerance. Enough is enough.

We appeal to all to speak the language of peace, reconciliation and tolerance, particularly our diaspora and intellectuals. We must all accept responsibility for what we say and what we do, to give peace a chance in Jonglei and the whole of South Sudan.

I highlight this for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder of the way our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world are on the frontlines of some difficult situations. It’s one thing, as I did last night, to sit and look at images of violence in the world and reflect on daily crucifixions in this world. It’s entirely another, as members of Archbishop Daniel’s commission will do tomorrow, to visit devastated villages on Good Friday and see the cross in our midst.

Second, it is always worth highlighting—since it seems it is so easily forgotten—that in many parts of the world, it is the church that is the active agent for peace and reconciliation in society, in part because that is the church’s calling but also because in some cases the church is the most well-established organization in society.

Daniel Deng Bul, incidentally, was recently nominated by a British think-tank for their person of the year award.