The great tragedy of South Sudan
Years of suffering and violence led to the creation of South Sudan in 2011. Now more fighting threatens to kill it. The story of how a young republic escaped Christian persecution, then quickly devolved into civil war, is an ongoing drama marked by danger
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Part I: Land that I love
On a foggy day in late January, John Chol Daau sat next to a wide window overlooking the Atlantic Ocean near Charleston, S.C., not far from the site of the opening salvo of the Civil War.
The South Sudanese pastor was visiting the United States to attend a conference for Anglican clergy, but another civil war weighed on his mind: the battle raging for the future of his own country.
More than 25 years ago, Daau fled his village in southern Sudan, as forces from the Islamic north invaded the predominantly Christian and animist south.
Daau survived the onslaught and eventually witnessed a series of remarkable events: Southern forces persisted in their 20-year defense against the north, and they secured a peace deal to end the war in 2005. Thousands of southerners began returning to their homeland after decades in exile.
In 2011, nearly 99 percent of citizens from the south voted for independence from the north. The nation of South Sudan was born. The United States played a key role: Evangelicals had pressed for American influence to relieve persecuted Christians. President George W. Bush pushed hard to help. Tens of thousands of celebrants flooded South Sudan’s capital city of Juba to rejoice on their Independence Day on July 9, 2011.
The jubilation was short-lived.
Just two years later, political infighting among leaders of the new nation returned the country to war. This time, brother fought against brother.
It’s been a tragic plot twist: After an epic struggle to return, more than a million South Sudanese citizens have fled the country and are filling overcrowded refugee camps in surrounding nations. It’s one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. “I thought we had learned so much,” says Daau. “But the country is falling apart again.”
How did South Sudan devolve so quickly? Could the United States have done more to nurture the infant nation it helped deliver to birth? And will a new administration under President Donald Trump help?
It’s a complicated tale whose outcome may hinge on another important question: Will politicians and international diplomats recognize the country’s best hope may lie in the Christian churches still standing despite decades of travail?
Part II: Lost and found
Daau remembers his last morning in his childhood village in southern Sudan. The sun was rising, and he drank milk from a hollow gourd. He and his brother soon left to join their father in the cattle field. His mother washed laundry by hand and waved goodbye to her chatting sons.
A moment later, an explosion shook the earth. Bombs rained from the sky and soldiers appeared, spraying bullets through the stunned village. Daau watched a well-known village leader fall dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
Like other children, Daau fled into the forest to escape the carnage. He was separated from his family, but running for survival. Soldiers pursued. The growing group of children—mostly boys—ran deeper into the forest. A leopard snatched a small child from the group, as starvation and thirst killed others.
He didn’t know it, but Daau was part of a vast group that came to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan—a hunted host of up to 30,000 children who trekked a thousand miles across treacherous terrain seeking refuge in other African nations.
Thousands of children died on their journeys.
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.
Though most roads were still unpaved, medical services were scarce, and clean water was difficult to find, villagers packed Sunday services at open-air church gatherings.
One villager, Michael Wani Vuni, had returned to the area after 25 years in refugee camps. He brought a few possessions, his wife, his six children, and his father-in-law. The family slept in a tent with a tarp, and they cooked over an open fire.
Still, Vuni said conditions in the camps were worse, and he was determined to stay in southern Sudan: “To tell you the truth, if another war comes, I will not leave. I will live here and die here.”
A return to war didn’t seem imminent when southern Sudanese voted for independence from northern Sudan in January 2011. By July, scores of South Sudanese filled the streets, rejoicing and openly weeping over their official freedom.
They raised their new flag and sang a national anthem that included a tribute to “our martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation / We vow to protect our nation / O God, bless South Sudan!”
Part IV: Things fall apart
By 2013, cries rang out again in Juba, but these were cries of terror instead of joy. Fighting had erupted between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar.
The conflict swelled after Kiir fired Machar, saying the vice president was planning a coup. Machar denied the allegation. The political fighting stoked ethnic strife: Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe; Machar belongs to the Nuer ethnic group. When the two men collided, so did some members of their tribes. Reports emerged Dinkas had killed Nuers in Juba and Nuer tribesmen had slaughtered Dinkas in other regions.
Relentless fighting has followed. Soldiers and militia members on both sides of the conflict have attacked civilians. A U.S. State Department report said human rights violations include ethnic-based killings, mass displacement of civilians, rape and sexual slavery, kidnappings, and recruitment of child soldiers.
Kiir has condemned attacks on civilians—and has pledged severe punishment for soldiers caught on rampages—but violence continues, and many citizens have fled rather than risk an attack. An estimated 340,000 have left the country in the last six months.
Meanwhile, Machar fled South Sudan after fresh fighting broke out last summer. Kiir has appointed a new vice president, but it’s unclear if peace will take hold or Machar will attempt a return.
Though violence has peaked recently, trouble began years before. While Southern leaders from different tribes and factions had managed to fight a common enemy from the Islamic north, they hadn’t learned how to govern together—a monumental task for a deeply needy nation emerging from decades of brutal civil war. Even after independence, the remaining leadership was full of factions and unhealed rifts often decades old.
The country’s leaders are responsible for their actions, but some Americans say the U.S. government didn’t do enough to prepare the nation they were encouraging to break out on its own.
Former congressman Frank Wolf, who was at the Independence Day celebration in Juba in 2011, says the Obama administration “took its eye off the ball.” Indeed, Obama condemned genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur during his presidential campaign in 2008. But after he won office, Sudan strategy stalled.
Scott Gration, President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, favored working more with the northern government in Khartoum. Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the UN, favored maintaining a harder line: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was accused of massive war crimes, and his regime continued bombing Christian populations in disputed oil regions along the north-south border.
The infighting produced a stalemate, and engagement waned during the critical period leading up to the vote on independence in 2011. Gration eventually resigned, and in the period leading up to the outbreak of fighting in 2013, two key U.S. posts were vacant: the special envoy to Sudan and the chief of Africa policy for the State Department.
Andrew Natsios, special envoy for Sudan under Bush, told Reuters: “When all of this was deteriorating, there was no one in charge.”
The United States continued to give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, but corruption and embezzlement spread within the young government. In 2012, President Kiir announced $4 billion had gone missing.
Even without embezzlement, money alone wasn’t enough to bring stability. Wolf says the leaders needed more help learning how to function as a democracy: “I don’t think we prepared them. … I don’t think there was a walking alongside.”
Jok Madut Jok, a former South Sudanese official, told The Wall Street Journal financial assistance without reconciliation between tribes and factions was doomed to fail: “What they missed is that people’s souls have to be fat in the same way.”
Part V: A precarious future
Obama did give Sudan a final moment of attention before leaving office in January: He eased sanctions against the Khartoum-based government and lifted a trade embargo.
Sudan remains on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, but Obama said the country had made progress in cooperating on some counterterrorism efforts. Human rights groups decried the decision, noting the Sudanese government still foments fighting in the south and has heavily bombed Christians and others along the north-south border.
It’s unclear how President Trump will handle the situation. Sudan is one of the seven countries the president listed on a temporary travel ban into the United States. If Trump sees Khartoum as a continuing threat—not only to South Sudan—he may draw a harder line again.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., says he’s hopeful the Trump administration will re-engage on South Sudan. One of Smith’s recommendations: appoint a special envoy to South Sudan with an already-established relationship with President Kiir. Smith’s suggestion: George W. Bush. The pair formed a significant relationship during Bush’s tenure (and Kiir still wears the cowboy hat Bush gave to him).
Smith—who traveled to South Sudan last year—has another suggestion: work with faith-based organizations. The congressman says the Obama administration often sidelined Christian groups from receiving grants and other assistance in conflict zones. But Christian groups and churches often have the most influence in local communities and the most direct ways of delivering aid to people who need it most.
Many pastors in South Sudan already have been meeting with government officials to promote peace and are teaching their congregants to treasure unity in Christ above tribal identities.
In the meantime, while some flee, former refugees like Levi and Daau continue to return. Daau completed a university education in Nairobi and has launched a Christian school for children in Juba. With hundreds of schools closing in South Sudan, he says 160 children showed up for the first day of classes at Good Shepherd Academy in Juba. Many have lost their fathers to the war and live with their mothers in nearby camps.
For Daau, schools are critical: He believes many of the country’s problems stem from a lack of good leadership, and educating children from a young age provides a path to training and mentoring future leaders.
He also trains pastors in refugee camps to continue serving their churches, even while they are in exile. Travel can be treacherous, since many roadways have grown dangerous, and targeted killings based on ethnicity continue.
Though the work is dangerous, Levi also says it’s worth it. Operation Nehemiah continues to provide farming, clean water, churches, and gospel-based teaching through a radio program in his home region. He says most fled the area after fighting erupted again last year, but a small staff remains on-site to tend to the group’s projects.
Levi continues to take his wife and six children when he returns to his village each year. He’s determined to continue the work of building up families and preaching the gospel in the land where he was born: “Our ministry does not depend on tribes. We are Christians. If we have to die there, we will die there.”
After Daau and I finished our conversation in late January, I drove past a monument to African slaves on Sullivan’s Island, S.C. Tens of thousands of West African slaves arrived at this port in the late 1700s. A plaque laments their suffering, but also celebrates the contributions they and their descendants made to a new nation.
I thought of Daau: He laments the suffering he and others have endured in South Sudan, but he remains hopeful the redemption of Christ can work peace in tragedy. He writes about how suffering drew him to Christ in his memoir God’s Refugee: “My whole life I had not simply been running through thorns, from one tragedy to the next, but to someone, the Redeemer of all. I had been chasing after the cross of Christ.”
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