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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

Bor and Jonglei, the church and state—a history of deep inter-connection

As violence continues in South Sudan, attention has come to be focused on Bor and Jonglei state. It is not surprising. This is a region that has played a key role in the history of the country—and the church. As events continue to unfold there, they are sure to continue to shape the country and the churchThe region that is now Jonglei state has long had a variety of ethnicities—Dinka, Nuer, Murle, and others. While it is tempting for outsiders to see these as fixed, concrete, “tribal” identities, it seems more likely that before the colonial period the boundaries between ethnicities were fluid and shifting. Dinka and Nuer, for instance, had much in common in terms of religion, language, etc. It was the British colonialists who insisted on fixing identities more firmly because it made them easier to rule.

Sudan’s second civil war more or less began with an army mutiny at Bor in 1983. In 1991, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which had grown out of that 1983 mutiny, split. The leader of the breakaway faction was Riak Machar, who has become a key player in the confusing events of the past week. In November 1991, with the support of the Khartoum government, his forces unleashed what became known as the “Bor Massacre,” in which several thousand Dinka around Bor were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced into an international Dinka diaspora that persists to this day. This event, more than any other, politicized ethnic identities in Jonglei and resulted in factional violence that was the most catastrophic part of the civil war.

Nathaniel Garang Anyieth, first Anglican bishop of Bor, c. 1992
Nathaniel Garang Anyieth, first Anglican bishop of Bor, c. 1992

The church has been present in the midst of all this history as well. The first Anglican mission station in southern Sudan was founded about six miles south of Bor, at a place called Malek, in 1906 among the Dinka. For a variety of reasons, the missionaries didn’t have much success. It wasn’t until 1984 that an Anglican bishop was consecrated for Bor. His name was Nathaniel Garang Anyieth and shortly after his consecration, Bor was attacked by the Khartoum government. Bor essentially emptied, as its residents fled for safety to their home villages or into the deep and inaccessible marshes along the Nile River.

Bishop Nathaniel was among those who fled. For the next five or six years, he moved among his people in these rural areas, cut off from the world but ministering all the same. At Lambeth 1988, he was referred to as the “Lost Bishop” because no one knew what had happened to him. Finally, in 1990, he was able to re-establish contact with the outside world—and he had quite the story to tell. The Dinka had turned to Christianity in great numbers and he had been baptizing, training, and ordaining just about as fast as he could.

In the 1990s, the church began what was known as the People-to-People peace process. Only the church was trusted to bring together grassroots Dinka and Nuer leaders to address conflicts and work towards reconciliation. These conferences are widely recognized as significantly reducing inter-communal violence and setting the stage of Riak Machar’s eventual reconciliation with the SPLA and his integration into the government of the new country.

All of this is background to the events of the past week. I spent much of April in Bor and Jonglei and have this week been trying to call people I know—with little success, as cell phones batteries appear to have run out. I have, however, managed to speak with people not in Jonglei but who have heard from those who are there. People are reported to be fleeing Bor to their villages and across the Nile—just as they have done in the past.

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

Bishop Nathaniel’s successor, Ruben Akurdit Ngong, is reported to be in the UN compound just outside Bor. He, along with an unknown—but large—number of other people are seeking refuge there. Again, this is what bishops in this part of the country do. They go to where the people are and stay with them. During the civil war, some bishops were forced to seek refuge in Juba, Khartoum, or abroad. I once asked Nathaniel Garang why he went into the bush with his people, rather than to a city. He looked at me like the answer was the most obvious thing in the world: “Because I was there with the people. If I leave them, the church would not happen. My staying with the people, that’s how they received the gospel.”

What we desperately don’t want is another civil war with Bor at its centre. The Anglican archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul (who is from Jonglei), this year was appointed to chair a national peace and reconciliation commission. Shortly before this week’s violence broke out, that commission released an exciting update on their work. Given the church’s history of peace-building, it seems like they have ever chance of succeeding—if supported and given the opportunity. But South Sudan’s leaders seem intent on ruining the chance for reconciliation before the work can even begin.

Just as I was finishing this post, I came across this video from the UN compound in Bor.

It is situations like these that are the setting for the profoundly incarnational ministry of the church in South Sudan.

(Some of the photos in this post have been collected from private individuals in the course of my doctoral research. Please do not use them without first contacting me. My new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, contains much more about the history of the church in South Sudan. I have followed this post up with a second with more gleanings from South Sudan’s history relevant to the current moment.)