Reflection on Conflict in South Sudan

Jillian Foerster served her Brethren Volunteer Service term in South Sudan in 2011-2013, only months after it gained independence from Sudan and became its own country.  Jillian has since completed her masters degree in international relations with a focus on Africa and is now working on U.S.- Africa policy and economic development in the region.  She shares from her extensive personal experience and research to help us better understand the struggles facing this young country.

In November 2011, I boarded a plane headed towards East Africa to serve as a BVSer in South Sudan. I was headed to work with a small, church-led peace building organization called RECONCILE, based in a town called Yei, located in the southern part of the country, near Uganda.

After decades of civil war with Sudan, South Sudan was struggling to overcome generations of widespread poverty and underdevelopment along with the deep trauma brought on by a legacy of violent conflict.  Nonetheless, after two years of working in Yei and forming new friendships in my community, I learned that South Sudanese men and women are fiercely resilient and were excited to start rebuilding their new nation for themselves and their children.

I left my BVS placement in December 2013. A week and a half after my departure, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, announced a coup in the capital of Juba by the former Vice President, Riek Machar. This signaled the launch of a new civil war.

While the situation is complex, there are essentially three different crises occurring in South Sudan: a security crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of leadership.

Security Crisis: Hundreds of thousands have already died in conflict or as a result of displacement since 2013. South Sudan has now unfortunately joined an unhappy club along with Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria, all of which have conflicts that have generated more than 1 million refugees. Counting the internally displaced (the legal designation given to people who still remain inside the country, whereas refugees are those that are outside of their home country), approximately one-third of South Sudan’s population have been forced to flee their homes due to violence.  Ethnicity plays a big role in the perpetration of violence, pitting neighbors against each other and carving deeper scars into an already fractured country.

While these numbers appear daunting, I used to rest assured that at least the people I knew remained safe in Yei, a town with a reputation of remaining peaceful even as much of the rest of the country is plunged into violence. However, there are now reports that indiscriminate killings have started taking place in the town. As of last week, the UN has warned that 100,000 people are now trapped in Yei, surrounded by armed actors.

Economic crisis: Even during my BVS term, a time of relative stability, , most of the population struggled to pay school fees for their children or get access to basic health care. Indeed, South Sudan has long been one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world with only one paved highway outside of the capital city.  Despite this low baseline, the security situation and other economic factors have contributed to plunging the country even further into a catastrophe.  A bar of soap that cost me 5 South Sudanese Pounds in 2013 now costs 200 pounds and food is scarce in the once-thriving local market in Yei.

Earlier this summer, I struggled to listen to my colleague describe how one of our neighbors in Yei slowly lost weight – He and his young children are slowly starving as they struggle to make ends meet.

Crisis of leadership: Despite the signing of a peace deal and international efforts to forge a Government of National Unity, South Sudan’s leaders have continued to perpetuate conflict as their citizens suffer. Furthermore, South Sudan’s leaders are reportedly stealing billions of dollars from state coffers and directing customs officials to prevent fleeing populations from leaving the country. It’s hard to even know the severity of the crisis because the government frequently blocks humanitarian actors from accessing crisis areas, preventing them from gathering information and providing much-needed assistance.

U.S. policy makers and other global leaders are shocked at the behavior of South Sudanese leaders and often express their disdain and condemnation in hearings and official statements. However, the crisis in South Sudan isn’t simply a matter of a few bad apples or “greedy leaders” misbehaving but a complex conflict with a complex history, taking place in a chaotic environment. The only thing that is obvious is that there is no simple solution to bringing about a lasting peace.

I find it hard to remain optimistic considering the deeps wounds inflicted by the recent and ongoing violence, a heart breaking admission given the hope that I witnessed after independence in 2011.

However, there remain a few good stories.  The Church of the Brethren has long partnered with churches in South Sudan who represent important community leaders and peacemakers at local and national levels. Churches have even stepped up to provide services, protection and to help South Sudanese families in need.  I recently saw a Facebook post from a friend that noted that over 50,000 people were being harbored in churches in Yei.  Overall, as one of my colleagues tells me, “the church has continued to be a prophetic voice in the midst of this conflict, speaking out against the atrocities and abuse of power… at great personal danger too.”

Engaging Christian leaders and other members of civil society will be key as South Sudan embarks on the difficult work of ending the conflict and repairing the wounds of war.

 

There’s a lot more to know about the recent events in South Sudan.  For more information, there are a number of sources for better understanding the context and possible international responses:

Deeper Dives:

 

 

Reframing lives

Village leaders meeting in Lohila, South Sudan. Photos by Becky Rhodes

Village leaders meeting in Lohila, South Sudan.
Photos by Becky Rhodes

A reflection by Becky Rhodes

While women were out cultivating the fields, village leaders sat on benches under the large shade tree in the center of Lohila in South Sudan. The 500-year-old village, often isolated during the rainy season, has never had a school for their children or a church building for worship. In November 2014, villagers identified these buildings as their great need—an opportunity for a better future following the prolonged violence.

The community of Lohila is a longstanding partner of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service program. The success of this partnership to construct the school and church depends on mutual investment and commitment.

On a recent visit, which included members of the Mission Advisory Committee, a spokesman of the village shared plans for building the foundations and walls for the church and school. Roger Schrock, a former missionary in Sudan and the co-leader of our group, applauded the inclusion of women on the village’s building committee. Athanasus Ungang, the Church of the Brethren staff member in Torit, provided an update on supplies en route from Kenya and introduced our group.

As the leaders spoke, the number gathered under the tree began to grow. Women and children gradually approached and began listening to the conversation from the periphery. Then an unexpected yet powerful voice rose from the group. A tall, statuesque woman holding a baby stepped out of the crowd. “Others have come here with promises, but they never came back,” she said. “Your coming to us today is God coming to us. As God parted the water for Moses, God has parted the grass [since South Sudan is land locked] to lead you here. Your presence blesses us, and God is blessing you.”

History tells us the biblical story has influenced great leaders. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln referenced Psalm 90:10 and God as Creator. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech reached its highest point with echoes of the prophet Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low… and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Great leaders reframe people’s lives in the biblical context.

I experienced an immediate and deep connection with this woman as she spoke our shared language of the Bible. She talked about the same Moses I know and love: the imperfect servant leader who cared for his people. There were many leaders in Lohila that day, but the most powerful voice belonged to the woman holding the baby. She is a great leader. Her words invoked our shared belief and trust in God. She reframed our lives, our relationship, and our work in the context of the biblical story. God is with us! And God with us is a solid foundation on which to build.

Learn more about Global Mission and Service at www.brethren.org/partners or support it today at www.brethren.org/give .

(Read this issue of eBrethren)