[Episcopal News Service] Almost three months have passed since Sudanese Angelina Rambang last heard from her husband. He’d been working with a bank in Juba, South Sudan, when fighting erupted last December after President Salva Kiir accused his sacked former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar of plotting a coup d’état.
The resulting conflict has forced some 1.5 million people to flee their homes to escape the violence, and thousands have died, a harsh reality as the Episcopal Church commemorates the Martyrs of Sudan on May 16. Kiir and Machar agreed to a truce on May 9, but fighting has continued in some parts of South Sudan and 5 million people are now in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
Rambang is taking each day as it comes. But the mother of four, a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in San Jose, says: “I am a Christian. I have faith in God that maybe [my husband] is hiding somewhere and maybe there will be a time he will call.”
The current conflict is “devastating, inexplicable,” she said, speaking by telephone one morning from her San Jose home during a brief break between returning from the school run and heading out to classes at Mission College, where she is a pre-nursing student.
“Too many people are dying, suffering,” she said of her East African homeland. “It must come to an end.”
Gabriel Tor, also a member of the Sudanese diaspora living in the U.S., describes the conflict in similar terms. “It’s needless, heartbreaking,” he told ENS during a recent telephone interview.
After South Sudan separated from the Islamic north following decades of civil war and as the result of a 2011 independence referendum, “we had high hopes that we were going to be peaceful, a better economy, modernizing ourselves and building the civilization that we have missed for years,” said Tor, also a member of Trinity Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real.
Tor was five years old in 1987 when he and his elder brother fled to Ethiopia to escape Sudan’s civil war. Four years later, they returned to their home in Twic East, Jonglei State, but within months the wrath of the Khartoum government had forced them to flee again. Months later, they reached the Kenyan border. The Red Cross came to their rescue and drove them to the Kakuma Refugee Camp where they lived for 12 years, fighting malnutrition and outbreaks of disease.
“I give thanks that by the grace of God I have made it this far,” he said.
Like many Sudanese currently in their 30s who moved to the U.S. as part of a resettlement program and came to be known as the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, Rambang and Tor share similar stories of survival; talk of their deep, unwavering faith; and dream of a lasting peace in their homeland.
Rambang also left her parents at a very young age to escape the violence in southern Sudan. Like Tor and thousands of others, she walked hundreds of miles to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and ended up at Kakuma, where she stayed for 10 years. She married her husband Joseph in 2002; they were resettled to San Jose in 2004. Many of the Lost Boys and Girls were resettled with the support of Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement program of the Episcopal Church.
After half a century of civil war, and all of the joy and hope that accompanied a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the formation of the new nation, the Sudanese diaspora has watched in shock as their homeland has been plunged back into conflict.
President Kiir is from the Dinka tribe and rebel leader Machar is Nuer, representing the two main Sudanese ethnic groups, which has led to claims that the conflict is tribal.
Rambang is Nuer and Tor is Dinka. Yet, like many of their fellow Sudanese, they share the same view that the current conflict stems primarily from political differences.
In many places, Tor said, Nuer and Dinka “are not in conflict because they realize that the issues are mostly political … The abuse came when both men [Kiir and Machar] used their tribal names to establish their claims.”
Even though there have been ethnic elements to the conflict and several instances of intertribal fighting, “it is the government and the rebels telling them to do this,” said Rambang, adding that in South Sudan, many Dinka and Nuer live peacefully and attend the same churches. “If you tie something to a rock and drag it, it will follow you. That is what the leaders are doing. They are the ones leading the killing of the people. The leaders of the country [are responsible] and they must bring this to an end.”
But Tor also acknowledged that the situation is very complicated, varies from region to region, and that it is challenging for accurate information to permeate all the communities of South Sudan, as well as the rest of the world.
For example, Tor said, “there are still Nuer generals standing with the army saying that this is not tribal and who some are calling traitors because they have not joined the rebellion against the government. But there are still many who are uneducated or uninformed who do not understand how this started or where it is going, and they are making it tribal.”
Bul Garang Mabil agrees.
“What is currently happening in South Sudan is not a tribal or ethnic issue but a failure of the post-war development programs in which tribal and ethnic affiliations have been exploited and manipulated,” said Mabil, who was resettled in 2000 to Jackson, Mississippi, after several years at Kakuma. Fourteen years later he is an active member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson and works for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
“What is not being reported in the media is the level of propaganda that both sides to the conflict have been using to rally or scare others into supporting their causes for the violence,” he told ENS in a recent interview.
“Since Christians in the United States pressed so hard for an independent South Sudan and have spoken consistently against the actions of the Government of Sudan [in the north], we must speak with equal clarity and consistency and frequency against violence within [the] largely Christian South Sudan,” he said, underscoring the need for Americans to speak out on the issue and write to President Barack Obama and members of Congress. “To say nothing, or so say little too late, is to be complicit in evil. We must speak loudly and clearly against the killing, terror, and starvation and do what we can to nurture peace.”
The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations on May 16 provided a template for an advocacy letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, urging him to support peace and reconciliation in South Sudan.
The Rev. Zachariah Jok Char also moved to the U.S. in 2000 at the age of 19, after calling Kakuma his home for 13 years.
He paid his way through college in Michigan, working as a dishwasher and at a meat factory, and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and biblical studies.
He now works in the refugee department at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has served as pastor of the Sudanese Grace Episcopal Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan since 2007.
He was visiting South Sudan in December 2013 when the conflict erupted and was forced to abandon his mission to build a medical clinic in his home village of Duk Padiet.
“When I heard the sound of guns, the night of Dec. 15, I was so sad and ashamed because I was not expecting the South Sudanese to fight one another,” he said.
Before he was evacuated by the U.S. Embassy on Dec. 19, he was able to visit the hospital to donate blood for the wounded, especially the civilians, he said. He spent a week in Kenya, expecting that the fighting would cease and he’d be able to return to South Sudan. When it was clear that the war was escalating, he flew back to the U.S. on Dec. 30.
Like Bul, Char holds the politicians responsible and says that the only way to ensure a lasting peace is from relentless pressure from the international community.
The Rev. Thon Chol, deacon of the Sudanese congregation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, said that the scale of human suffering and the scale of political greed among the leaders have not been sufficiently reported by the media.
Chol described his congregation, which is primarily Dinka but also includes other Sudanese ethnicities, as “very inclusive. If you talk to the average Dinka or Nuer, we all have the same dreams. Our politicians are sometimes the ones who don’t get along, and when this happens they go back to their tribal affiliation [and] … brainwash people to achieve their personal goals.”
The current crisis, Chol said, has taken a new emotional toll on the south Sudanese. “It was different when we were fighting the common enemy [the Khartoum government]. We thought that when we get independence everything would be OK. This latest conflict has somewhat killed our hope. We are fighting ourselves now … Right now a lot of people are very hopeless, but still as a Christian, as a pastor, I say we need to look to God. During the war God was our main protector.”
Chol, who was resettled in Michigan in 2000, was an ambassador for the Partners in Peace project in 2011 that worked among several villages in Jonglei State to build a society of reconciliation.
“There is a need for true reconciliation in South Sudan,” he said. “People need to talk and come to full admission and acceptance for a way to move forward. Here in the diaspora we also need reconciliation and dialogue. We need to open a new chapter.”
Chol raised concerns that some of the messages and responses from the Sudanese diaspora throughout the recent conflict have not always been helpful. “We have contributed to the current problem in South Sudan because there is inconsistency in what we’ve been saying. There has been so much propaganda and lies; a lot of hateful messages, very demeaning and targeting particular tribes. So we have been trying to address that. A lot of people pick up just pieces of information.”
The Rev. Ross Kane, associate rector at St. Paul’s, serves alongside Chol and says he’s heard tragic stories from members of the Sudanese congregation there, “many of whom have lost loved ones and have seen tremendous suffering.”
As a former Episcopal Church missionary in South Sudan, working with the New Sudan Council of Churches, Kane wishes that the church’s work for peace and reconciliation there would get more attention. “It profoundly changed the landscape in the region and should be a source for hope in overcoming the current conflict,” he said.
Episcopalians and Roman Catholics account for the vast majority of the population in South Sudan.
Episcopal Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul was summoned to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to take part in the May 9 negotiations between Kiir and Machar. Deng led the two men in prayer before they signed the peace deal.
Deng was appointed chairperson of the national reconciliation committee by Kiir in April 2013, a move that highlights the central role that the church plays in peacebuilding and helping to heal the mental wounds in South Sudan following decades of civil war with the Islamic north.
Kane believes the path to peace can be found through the church, and in particular through the pioneering work of the New Sudan Council of Churches, an ecumenical body which facilitated grassroots peace negotiations in the 1990s, bringing together Dinka and Nuer chiefs, politicians and religious leaders in order to name past atrocities and to seek restitution.
“The peace process spread across southern Sudan, building unity among southern Sudanese; such unity proved vital in ending Sudan’s civil war and in securing South Sudan’s independence,” he said.
One of the challenges he senses with today’s conflict is that the government and other leaders “still behave like it’s a rebel movement, so there is a desire for wholesale political reform but no sense of how to do it without destabilizing things even more,” he said.
Kane says he feels “profoundly sad to see that the people who struggled for so long to find self-determination…are now undergoing such a tragedy.”
But he doesn’t lose hope. “When I see the people of South Sudan who are putting their lives on the line to accept refugees of different ethnicities in their home; when I see southern Sudanese church leaders putting their lives on the line for the sake of peace; when I see the way churches are collaborating with [tribal] chiefs and non-Christians, Muslims to try to form a peaceful movement … That is where I see God. The spirit is moving and there are witnesses for peace, but as much as they don’t make headlines, they are a major part of South Sudanese culture.”
Kane describes the Sudanese as “a proud people. They are, to me, the best representation of the indomitable human spirit. They’ve lived through decades of civil war, and they do not lose hope. There is something profoundly inspiring in that to me.”
Meanwhile, Rambang and Tor, Nuer and Dinka, along with their fellow Sudanese in the diaspora, continue to pray together for a lasting peace in their homeland.
The Rev. Jerry Drino has dedicated the last 10 years to supporting and mentoring people like Rambang and Tor, through his ministry at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose and his education and outreach agency Hope With South Sudan. He says he has shared in their suffering, but has been inspired equally “by their resilience, faith and optimism that God had not abandoned them and that God was in their suffering, in their struggles, in their dying and in their rebirth.”
“I almost have the feeling that there is no place to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by what is happening, because as long as there is the smallest sliver of light coming through the darkness, that is sufficient,” he said.
Over the years, Drino says he’s “participated in the weaving of a safety net for all of us, Sudanese and others, so that when disaster hits the impact is absorbed by the whole community.
“I am humbled to be a part of this community that will not be defeated, but in love look beyond the chaos to see a new society, a new church waiting to be restored and made new.”
— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has called the Episcopal Church to prayer and action for South Sudan.
The U.S.-based Episcopal Church has long-standing partnerships with the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan, through companion diocese relationships, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) programs and the advocacy work of the Office of Government Relations.
Current companion relationships include Albany (New York) with the Province of Sudan, Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) with Kajo Keji, Chicago with Renk, Indianapolis with Bor, Missouri with Lui, Rhode Island with Ezo, Southwestern Virginia with the Province of Sudan, and Virginia with the Province of Sudan.