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.
There 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.