The war had erupted in the 1980s, in part as the Khartoum-based government in northern Sudan tried to impose Islamic law on Christians and others in the south. Southerners resisted, and rebels in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army bolstered resistance. Northern forces launched a brutal campaign in a war that killed an estimated 2 million people and drove 4 million from their homes.
For those living in the refugee camps, months turned to years, and conditions were often severe.
As a teenager, Daau cared for smaller boys in his camp in Ethiopia, and buried the ones who didn’t survive. He remembers leading other children in a funeral procession for an orphaned 6-year-old boy so heartbroken he’d stopped eating. The older boys carried his tiny body to a shady spot nearby and dug a shallow grave. Daau offered a prayer, but said the moment was “too much for our young souls.”
Still, Daau found purpose in Christian ministry in the camp, leading services of prayer and singing Christian songs. He scanned message boards for news of his remaining family. He longed to find his mother.
Meanwhile, Christians in the United States began stirring over the suffering in Sudan. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., began making trips to the war-torn region to learn more about conditions and persecuted Christians in the south. The Christian aid agency Samaritan’s Purse resurrected a hospital that had been surrounded by land mines. When the aid workers arrived, one nurse was providing medical care for the entire community.
In a controversial move, the European group Christian Solidarity International launched a slave redemption program to pay slave traders for southerners and others kidnapped during government raids. The stories galvanized Christians in many U.S. congregations.
Susan Rice (who later became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a national security adviser for President Barack Obama) helped persuade President Bill Clinton’s administration to impose sanctions on Sudan in the 1990s. The U.S. government also offered aid to southern Sudan.
When George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, he moved quickly: On his second day in office, he ordered high-level staff to find a way to help bring an end to the war in Sudan.
Daau knew little about the developments in the United States at the time. He was still surviving. When Ethiopian forces drove refugees from the camps, Daau and others fled. They walked to Kenya. The development stunned them, but he says he remembers praying to Jesus: “I know You are here. … I know You are good.”
Still, Daau hadn’t given up on finding his family alive. He soon learned his father had died, but he heard that his mother was still living. Daau continued searching among thousands of refugees. His discovery came suddenly.
One day, a woman in a camp recognized his mother’s name and pointed the way. After more than a decade of separation, Daau and his mother were reunited. He recalls her saying: “I thought I would never get to be your mother again, but I knew that God could be a mother for you. … I am praising God.”
Part III: A nation is born
As Daau and his mother rejoiced, military forces in southern Sudan were still holding their defenses against government assault. And they had an impressive leader.
John Garang had earned a doctorate from Iowa State University in 1981 and returned to Sudan to teach. The charismatic personality with American friends became leader of the rebel movement in the south. Southerners revered the 6-foot-tall powerhouse.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration worked to persuade the government in northern Sudan to sign a peace agreement with the south. The United States had imposed sanctions on Sudan in the 1990s and declared the nation a state sponsor of terrorism for harboring international terrorists—including Osama bin Laden, who lived in Khartoum in the early 1990s.
The 9/11 attacks brought terrible clarity: With America on a massive offense against terrorism, leaders in Sudan likely worried the relationship would worsen if they didn’t offer some cooperation. By early 2002, leaders were laying the foundation for a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, eventually signed in January 2005.
Less than seven months later, Garang, the charismatic leader of the southern movement, died in a helicopter crash. At his funeral, an archbishop compared Garang to Moses delivering his brothers from captivity. Now the people hoped for a Joshua in Garang’s military colleague and successor, Salva Kiir.
With the war officially ended, southern Sudanese started returning home in droves. Thousands came back to a wilderness: villages overgrown by years of neglect, churches burned, and homes razed. Still, beauty began rising from ashes.
During a visit in 2008, I witnessed villagers returning to their homeland just north of the Ugandan border. William Levi, a South Sudanese Christian who had fled the region decades before, was leading a project to rebuild the area through his Christian organization Operation Nehemiah Missions.