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.

“They are our friends, our brothers. We don’t want them in the bush for another war.”

IMG_9916This morning I spoke with Bishop Hilary Garang Deng, the Anglican bishop of Malakal in South Sudan. He had quite the story. (I previously wrote about Bishop Hilary and some of the background on the importance of Malakal.)

From Monday to Friday of last week, the town was the site of a running battle between various factions of Sudan’s ruling party/army. Bishop Hilary sheltered in his home with his family with no water, electricity, etc. Unlike in Sudan’s civil war, Hilary reported that as long as civilians sheltered in their homes, they were not targeted, though could still be hit by stray bullets. Eventually, the “rebel” forces were pushed out of Malakal, though they are now reported to be moving east along the Sobat River and south towards Bor.

Meanwhile, they leave behind a town that has been devastated. The market is looted, shops are burned down. There are critical needs for food, medicine, and shelter, both for the tens of thousands of people who are sheltering in the UN compound as well as those, like Hilary, who have stayed in their homes. At the diocesan compound, the office building and health clinic survived, though the clinic has virtually no medications. The diocese’s two vehicles—vital for navigating a vast diocese—were destroyed. Hilary said that people “no longer have fear of violence, but there is a lot of need—a lot of need.”

Diocese of Malakal health clinic
Diocese of Malakal health clinic

He asked me to highlight one challenge in particular. Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the Sudan government has closed the border between north and south. At one point, Malakal was a major community in southern Sudan precisely because it had the closest trade links with the north. Since independence, however, Malakal has declined as more and more trade has been with Uganda and Kenya and passed through Juba. International aid comes that way as well. Given that road links between Juba and Malakal are cut because of the violence, Hilary expressed concern at the difficulty of getting the necessary aid to Malakal. He said that the north had to be pressured to re-open the border so that aid could get to Malakal faster.

Malakal, as I have written previously, is in a crucial position and has a mixed, inter-ethnic population. Hilary said the violence has divided the Nuer from the other communities in town. Attendance at the Nuer services was low yesterday and the majority of Nuer fear reprisal. Because of this fear, many Nuer young men have fled town and joined the “rebel” forces, leaving primarily women and children behind who feel particularly vulnerable.

I asked him what he thought of all the violence. Here is what he had to say: “It is not acceptable. None of us support it. Our political leaders are not mature. They have to learn to resolve their conflicts. We have communities that are still fragile. We want the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party] to restore peace to the south. We want to advise the ruling party to seek help from IGAD [a regional inter-governmental organization] and international partners as to how they can build reconciliation.”

As for those who have joined the breakaway movement, including its apparent leader Riak Machar: “They are our friends, our brothers. We don’t want them in the bush for another war.”

Telling the truth

In church this morning, we read a part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:13-23) that doesn’t often make our pageants: the massacre of the all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem by King Herod. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph flee to Egypt. Jesus begins his life as a refugee in Africa. It is an event that is remembered as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.600px-Matteo_di_Giovanni_002

It is a deeply disturbing and troubling story, particularly to a culture that has come to associate Christmas with shepherds, wise men, the odd sugarplum fairy, and lots and lots of presents. It is easier to think about those things than it is to think about soldiers marching through the streets of Bethlehem looking for children to kill.

But by including this story in his telling of the Christmas story, I think Matthew is doing an important thing: he is telling the truth. The Christmas story contains this brutal and awful bit because the world that Jesus was born into really could be brutal and awful. Our world is no different, whether it is in violence in the Central African Republic, Syria, or South Sudan, or the more hidden brutality of children who go to bed hungry, people without a home at night, or any of the number of social problems in our society.

Christians are people who tell the truth. Christians are people who describe the world around them honestly, praising and rejoicing at appropriate times but also frankly confronting the difficult and challenging parts of our lives. The church is a community of truth-tellers.

I thought about this when I read about what Bishop Hilary Garang of Malakal, South Sudan told the BBC the other day: this violence is not right; we need mature leaders who are capable of settling their differences without resorting to violence. That is a moment of truth, particularly when political leaders are going around saying that their enemies have to be eliminated.

But you don’t have to go all the way to South Sudan to tell the truth. This week, Rowan Williams—who is now, inter alia, the patron of a food-bank organization—criticized the government for its comments about people who seek help from food banks. He said, in part:

It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers – but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.

In austerity Britain, where the need for food banks has exploded in recent years, this is simply telling the truth—even and especially if it makes those in power uncomfortable.

Christian truth-telling begins with ourselves. That is why our services have times of confession when we can honestly assess our own lives and hear the true words of forgiveness and absolution. Churches are places where when people ask us, “How are you?” we don’t have to feel pressured to say, “Oh, just fine,” but can say, “Well, actually things aren’t going so well. Will you pray with me?” That the church isn’t always this place is an indictment of the church that we should face honestly.

There really is a lot of hope and peace and love and joy in the Christmas story—just as there is in the world. But the Massacre of the Holy Innocents reminds us that that is not all there is. Christians are people who honestly face both the joys and the challenges of this world, who tell the truth about them, and who work to bring about God’s peace for our communities and this world.

“We need maturity. People who can be nationalists, who can stand for the sake of South Sudan and the people of South Sudan.”

Hilary Garang Deng at home in Malakal, September 2013
Hilary Garang Deng at home in Malakal, September 2013

I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to contact Bishop Hilary Garang Deng of Malakal, South Sudan but the BBC succeeded yesterday. (Must be the modest difference in the resources available to us.) The NewHour program on the World Service interviewed Bishop Hilary in Malakal with the sounds of gunfire and explosions in the background. You can listen to the five-minute interview at this link. It begins around 4:30. A little background. Malakal is a major settlement in South Sudan. It occupies a critical place on the road and river network in the region, connecting north, east, south, and west. It is also—and always has been—a multi-ethnic city. Shilluk, Nuer, Dinka, Bari, and many others live there. Because of this, the church has a particularly important role to play as a site of reconciliation. When I was there in September, I attended a church service at the cathedral in which people from all those ethnic groups were worshipping together in a variety of languages.

Diocese of Malakal compound: the under-construction cathedral is on the left, the school is in the middle, and the diocesan offices are on the far right
Diocese of Malakal compound: the under-construction cathedral is on the left, the school is in the middle, and the diocesan offices are on the far right
Health clinic in the Diocese of Malakal, funded in part by Episcopal Relief and Development
Health clinic in the Diocese of Malakal, funded in part by Episcopal Relief and Development

Bishop Hilary is originally from farther south in Jonglei state and has been bishop of Malakal for about ten years. He was educated at Bishop Gwynne College in the early 1980s, a critical period in the church’s life when several people who are now senior bishops were in school together and the quality of instruction under principal Benaiah Poggo was superb. (That era came to end in 1987 when the civil war reached the college, an event BGC is still trying to recover from. Another bishop who was at BGC in that era was Ruben Akurdit Ngong of Bor, whom I spoke to yesterday.) Bishop Hilary is also a talented artist and musician. I hope some day you’ll have the opportunity to see his artwork or hear him play the guitar. No transcript of the NewsHour interview appears to exist, so I have transcribed a few of Bishop Hilary’s comments. I make no promises for its accuracy.

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. Today, there is heavy shelling. About five shells have come into the middle of the town and also some houses near my residence where I am near the church…. The SPLA has taken us this far. They are almost going to let us down. It is a pity. I appeal to the friends of IGAD and all who have brought us peace in South Sudan that they should really help us to resolve the issues. Because at the end if they don’t help them, they are going to wreck the ship…. We the citizens are being frustrated. We need maturity. People who can be nationalists, who can stand for the sake of South Sudan and the people of South Sudan. We cannot have South Sudan without Dinka. We cannot have South Sudan without anybody. All of us, we are children of this land. And we have to care for one other.

Amen to all that.

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.