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DISPLACED: People rest after getting off a river barge in Awerial, South Sudan—some of the thousands who fled recent fighting between government and rebel forces in Bor.
Associated Press/Photo by Ben Curtis
DISPLACED: People rest after getting off a river barge in Awerial, South Sudan—some of the thousands who fled recent fighting between government and rebel forces in Bor.

Brother vs. brother

South Sudan | As political and tribal conflict splits South Sudan, church leaders hope to be peacemakers

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

When John Chol Daau heard gunfire erupt in Juba, South Sudan, on the night of Dec. 15, the sound was disturbing but familiar.

Daau, now an Episcopal priest, fled his home in South Sudan in the 1980s, as Sudanese troops from the north waged a brutal 20-year war against southerners in an attempt to impose Islamic law on the Christian and animist region. The war killed some two million South Sudanese and displaced an estimated four million.

The young Daau joined the now-famous “Lost Boys” of Sudan—a cadre of about 20,000 South Sudanese boys and teenagers who trekked more than a thousand miles across treacherous terrain to sparse refugee camps in neighboring countries.

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More than 20 years later, the north and south signed a peace treaty, and South Sudan declared its independence from the north in 2011. Daau pursued Christian ministry and returned to South Sudan to establish a Christian college and seminary in the land he once fled.

But the gunfire Daau heard in South Sudan’s capital of Juba this past December signaled the beginning of a conflict that threatens to unravel the 2-year-old nation. This time, southerners are fighting southerners, and in some regions tribes have turned against tribes.

That’s a vexing reality for hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese citizens who now have fled their homes again. The United Nations estimates nearly half a million displaced citizens. And it’s an urgent challenge for church leaders like Daau who have worked hard to promote peace for years.

Indeed, churches have played a vital role in South Sudanese life for decades, providing aid during wars and counsel during conflicts. In the past, government officials have appointed church leaders to head peace commissions between warring tribes.

Abraham Nhial, an Episcopal bishop in South Sudan and author of the autobiography Lost Boy No More, says churches are facing the complex problems of the new conflict with simple means: visiting refugees, talking with government officials, praying with those suffering, and preaching the Bible. 

“Politics can’t bring people together, but the gospel can,” he said in a phone interview. “As Christians, we want to be peacemakers.”

Nhial says the prospect of southerners fighting southerners is bewildering. “We were born in war. We grew up in war. We had our own children in the war. We don’t want it to continue.”

PEACEMAKING SEEMED elusive after fighting erupted in Juba on Dec. 15 between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.

After a gunfight between soldiers in an army barracks, the president accused Machar of attempting a coup. Machar denied it, but called for Kiir to step down. Machar became the leader for rebel troops that initially seized control of key cities.

In some regions, the political fight stoked ethnic conflict: Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe; Machar belongs to the Nuer ethnic group. Reports emerged that Dinkas had killed members of the Nuer tribe in Juba, and that Nuer tribesmen had killed Dinkas in other regions.

It’s a complicated conflict with deep roots. In the 1990s, southern forces known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) split in their fight against the north. Machar defected for a time, and he led an infamous massacre of some 2,000 Dinka tribesmen in 1991.

John Garang, the first president of South Sudan, eventually reconciled with Machar in an attempt to unify the south. Garang died in a helicopter crash shortly after the war ended in 2005, and Kiir became president. Machar became vice president.

But the old wounds festered, even as the country declared its independence in 2011, and Kiir absorbed members of militia from various tribes into the country’s army. Meanwhile, Kiir faced increasing criticism as the new country continued to suffer from weak development and accusations of government corruption.

Machar was a chief critic of Kiir, who fired Machar from his vice presidential post last July. Tensions swelled over the next few months until fighting broke out in December.

By mid-January, the two sides had sent representatives to peace talks in Ethiopia, but fighting continued. A key question remained unanswered: What did Machar hope to achieve? Few believed Machar could gain control of the country, and Kiir seemed determined to end the rebellion.

But other questions loomed: Even if the two sides reached a ceasefire, how would the country address the deeper problems that led to the conflict? And how could outside nations help the country move past crisis and toward development?

For the United States, that’s a critical question. The U.S. government helped steer South Sudan toward independence and has given the nation $300 million in aid over the last two years. But some American experts on South Sudan say U.S. officials should have done more to help defuse the building tension over recent months.

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