If anybody ever deserves peace and security, it is the terrorized tribal Africans of South Sudan.
The world first learned of their plight in the 1990s, when thousands of boys between the ages of seven and 17 began arriving at refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda telling tales almost too horrific to be believed.
More than 20,000 in all, they became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan – orphans of a complex civil war that was difficult for outsiders to understand. It was more than the Sudanese government fighting a rebel army – more of a battle between tribal warlords, small-time religious thugs and psychopathic gangsters who forced children to become killers.
The kids told horror stories of watching their rural villages being savagely destroyed by fast-moving, murderous militia who were often high on drugs and blood lust. The boys told of escaping death only because they were out watching their families’ goats when their villages were attacked. They told of hiding in the underbrush and watching as their parents and siblings were terrorized, tortured, raped, maimed and murdered by crazed raiders who then stole all the food and burned everything that remained of the village.
Together, the boys walked thousands of miles across Africa to refugee camps. Many died during the trek from disease, hunger, victimization by rival tribes, and animal attacks.
In 2001, the United States allowed roughly 3,400 of the boys to resettle here.
Their stories are heartbreaking. In Nashville, Paul Joseph tells of wandering across the devastated countryside with friends – nobody older than nine. They scavenged for food, took up with older boys – 12-year-olds – then set off for refugee camps in Uganda. En route, they were captured by a violent militia which forced them to become soldiers and raiders. Joseph denies ever killing anyone, but says he became a firearms instructor, teaching the younger boys how to shoot and maintain AK-47 assault rifles.
Eventually, he slipped away, made it to a refugee camp, then was
befriended by an American woman who helped him come to the United States where he graduated from high school, then college and now is an assistant pastor at a Nashville church.
All the while, he and others like him tell of dreaming of one day returning to their home country to rebuild what decades of senseless, ongoing war had destroyed. And out of the area, stories emerged of starvation and suffering in vast refugee camps that seemingly were ignored by their government.
For decades the conflict raged on the southern tip of one of the world’s oldest countries, Sudan. The south’s population was predominantly dark-skinned tribal peoples who were Christian and traditional animists – distinctly different than Sudan’s majority Muslim light-skinned Arabs.
The Muslim northerners were alternately accused of ignoring the devastation of the south – or of causing the extreme persecution there by supporting and funding the roving rebels, such as the drug-fueled Ganjaweed militia, who regularly raided Christian villages, taking the young into slavery while murdering the men and older women.
Having survived the nightmare, some of the survivors have returned to South Sudan. Others work abroad, sending money to relatives and working to bring peace to their homeland.
In January 2011, United Nations-sponsored elections were held to determine whether South Sudan should declare independence from Sudan and 98.83 percent of the population voted in favor of breaking away from the Arab north. That led to a UN-brokered partition of the nation on July 9, 2011, although the oil-wealthy region of Abyei remains disputed – claimed by both Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan.
However, the heartbreak continues. The brand-new republic, scarred by decades of brutal conflict, has disintegrated into new chaos fed by age-old tribal vendettas.
A South Sudanese child waves her country’s new flat (U.S. government photo)
The fledgling nation seems to be at war with itself. At least seven armed groups in nine of its 10 states are battling each other. Tens of thousands of civilians are now fleeing to refugee camps. Much of the conflict seems to be based on inter-tribal ethnic distrust still festering after decades of unending war.
“The world’s youngest country, a mere two and a half years old, now stands on the precipice of a new civil war which threatens to hurl South Sudan back into the violence from which it just emerged,” reports actor George Clooney, who has made numerous trips to the area. “For the South Sudanese who fought and suffered so dearly for their independence, and for those around the world who supported the
new state, this development is tragic and disappointing, but it is hardly surprising or without vast precedent.”
“Most African countries that emerged from colonial rule or long periods of dictatorship have experienced rocky transitions marked by violence and coups,” notes Clooney. “Sudan itself, from which South Sudan split in 2011, was born into a civil war and has been rocked by three major coups since independence in 1956. Similar stories have plagued the neighboring states of Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, and Congo. South Sudan’s own fledgling state has been rendered vulnerable by a major rift in the country’s political leadership, where past unresolved grievances were left to fester.
“When politicians use ethnic mobilization to promote their agendas,” writes Clooney, “violence can metastasize quickly. The potential for explosion in South Sudan is even worse because of the billions of petro-dollars that have poured into the country, much of which were used to purchase sophisticated weaponry.”
The nation is blessed – or perhaps cursed – by oil wealth. Who will control the oilfields is a prime source of contention.
“At a well-attended investor conference in South Sudan’s capital in early December, President Salva Kiir declared that the world’s newest country was ‘at last safe’ and open for business,” reported Reuters news staffers Carl Odera and Edmund Blair. “It was a bold assertion from a nation that only gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades mired in conflict. It suggested the moment had come to cap a huge international effort to build a state. But it proved spectacularly ill-timed.
“On December 15,” reported Reuters, “fighting erupted that has swiftly spread beyond the capital along ethnic faultlines, exposing the failure of national reconciliation efforts, the limited influence of generous foreign sponsors and the reluctance of rebel fighters-turned-statesmen to give up the tactics of bush conflict.”
“Please continue to pray for South Sudan,” requests the Christian advocacy group Open Doors, “where fighting broke out in December between government soldiers and forces loyal to deposed vice president Riek Machar. Fierce battles rocked Bor last week as the government battled to take the city back from the rebels. On Saturday news reporters were allowed back into the town that has been reduced to ashes. Sadly, the violence has now taken on ethnic overtones and in the process is opening old wounds for this young nation.
“A distraught Open Doors staff member explained that ethnic tension is very high at the moment. Although Open Doors’ Emmanuel Christian Center, a training place for pastors, in the south has not been affected by the violence per se, the ethnic turn of the war is disrupting operations.”
“On December 16,” reports Armin Rosen for American Interest, “South Sudanese president Kiir announced that former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he dismissed in July, had launched a failed coup
attempt. Kiir wore military fatigues rather than his now-iconic cowboy hat, the original of which was a gift from then-president George W. Bush.
“As Africa security analyst Lesley Ann Warner has noted, it’s unclear whether Kiir was telling the truth about the coup attempt, but it’s significant that he kicked by harkening back to internal conflicts within the governing Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in the early 1990s, when the SPLM was in the midst of a 20-year-long insurgency against the Khartoum government.
“Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, and Machar, from the Nuer, have been at this for a long time. Their grudge, and the ethnic cleavages it embodies, long predate South Sudan’s independence from and they now have the potential to plunge the country into even deeper chaos.
“Machar has fled the capital and the past few days have brought credible reports of heavy artillery fire and organized ethnic violence.
“There was always evidence that Kiir’s control over the country was basically non-existent,” writes Rosen.
“Travel is very dangerous,” reports Open Doors. “Airlifting students from their remote areas to the center often means refueling in now considered enemy areas. It is a risk most are unwilling to take. Road travel has also become very dangerous as both the army and the rebels have set up roadblocks looking for enemies. Anyone stopped who has the typical features or traditional facial markings of the enemy tribe is in grave danger.”
Open Doors staffers are at risk of being caught in the middle.
“Students from all tribes study together at the Emmanuel Christian Center,” said the Open Doors spokesman. “Bringing together students from these different tribes right now could be considered a provocation. Therefore, teaching is on hold. Teaching at most of Open Doors’ regional centers has also been suspended until further notice. The recent developments in South Sudan are causing much concern.”
“People are scattered. They sleep in the cold, without food or water. This calamity was never anticipated. Nobody dreamed about it. But it is here now,” said the staff member.
Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have sought refuge at U.N. compounds across Sudan. The Open Doors team had contact with a student who is at a compound in Juba who reported that “the situation in the U.N. compound is not good; people are suffering from hunger and thirst. Children have already started dying,” the staff member told
the Open Doors headquarters in the Netherlands.
The local team is particularly worried about rumors that there are many who are considering joining the fighting out of fear for their lives.
“People are badly affected,” he added. “I heard on U.N. radio yesterday evening a young child explain that she could not sit for her exams because of the war. She was supposed to study for a postponement of the exam, but was unable to do so because she had to leave all her notebooks when they fled.
“The child said her parents were crying all day over relatives that were killed and that made her very sad. Hearing her speak like that, without any hope for the future, broke my heart and left me sobbing.
“Please pray with us for peace!”
“Two and a half million South Sudanese died for the creation of this new state,” notes Clooney. “With robust international action and statesmanship by South Sudan’s leaders, millions more deaths can be prevented.”