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.

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.

On scholarship and the priesthood

In any given week, I spend a lot of time thinking about Christianity in Sudan and South Sudan. It is, more or less, my job. I’m a doctoral student and my research concerns precisely these topics.

In most weeks, my focus on this research is a quiet affair. Sure, I talk with friends and colleagues about what I am uncovering, think about how it connects to other questions in the field of African and world Christianity, and ponder what the implications are for mission and evangelism in the western world, but for the most part it is just me, my books, and interview transcripts from my oral history fieldwork trips.

In the past two weeks, however, this has all changed rather dramatically. South Sudan has become enveloped in a disastrous spiral of violence. Personally, I have found these developments deeply distressing and have spent a fair bit of time calling friends and contacts in South Sudan simply because I have a great deal of love and affection for them and want to know how they are.

But I have also had a professional reaction to all of this. “Hey,” I thought when this all began, “I know something about this. And I think that what I know could help Christians and others around the world begin to understand the deep complexity of what is happening in South Sudan.” So I’ve been posting material on this blog. Some posts have been historical in nature. Others have reported on my phone calls with friends and tried to provide context to what is going on.

To tell you the truth, I had no particular strategy in mind when I began posting things. I just knew I had information I wanted to get out there and writing is a default response for an aspiring academic. But I gradually began to notice something. People were reading it. They were contacting me to thank me for the background and the context. Aid organizations have asked me to send them what I know. International reporters have been in touch to ask for my contacts in South Sudan. It has been an effort just to stay on top of the e-mail I’m receiving (though don’t let that stop you writing).

For me, my scholarship and my ordination as an Anglican/Episcopal priest are inextricably linked. The Latin word for priest—pontifex—means literally bridge-builder and the idea has a deep resonance for me. As a priest and a Christian, I believe I am to help develop relationships between people and God and between people and one another. I dig deeply into the history of the church in Sudan and South Sudan because I think there is information there that will help all of us be linked more deeply to our sisters and brothers in Christ there. I hope my research also helps build links in the other direction as well.

Sometimes the connection between my research and that bridge-building is not immediately obvious. I can go whole weeks (months, even!) wondering just why I thought it was a good idea to start this degree. But then something like this explodes and the connections become obvious—and painful—once again.

I am not the first to write about this, bit it is worth noting that the Episcopal Church has not historically been a place that is congenial to this connection between scholarship and priesthood. The church, it sometimes seems, prefers to put its emphasis on the new, the trendy, and the novel. History is for boring old fuddy-duddies. Except, of course, as these last weeks have shown, it’s not. People in the church really care about this stuff. My Inbox is testimony to that fact.

The thing about scholarship, of course, is you never know just what is going to be important so you have to support lots of it. But history has a way of rearing its head in unexpected ways. The Episcopal Church is currently debating liturgical changes around same-sex blessings. Surely there is something to be gained from studying the extensive history of acrimonious liturgical revision in Anglican history to see what insights might apply to our current day? But where is the next generation of liturgical scholars in the Episcopal Church? This is one example of many that could be cited.

As we look back on 2013, perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the church is the emergence of the Scholar-Priest Initiative to address precisely these concerns. Scholarship (at a doctoral level or otherwise) and ordained vocations (priestly or otherwise) are intimately inter-related. That’s what the last few weeks have demonstrated yet again for me.

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.


“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.