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.
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.
Eric Reeves—a Sudan expert and professor at Smith College—wrote that South Sudan received too little help in “establishing democratic institutions that would allow the SPLM to outgrow its guerilla warfare past.” He continued: “The U.S. couldn’t dictate governance, but could have done more to assist.”
During the months leading up to the current crisis, 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 President George W. Bush, told Reuters news service: “When all of this was deteriorating, there was no one in charge.”
Jok Madut Jok—a former South Sudanese official who now works for the Sudd Institute in Juba—said longtime factions needed help learning how to govern together. Jok told The Wall Street Journal that outside countries helped South Sudan with foreign aid. The paper added: “What they missed is that people’s souls have to be fat in the same way.”
FOR SOUTH SUDAN church leaders, attending to the needs of bodies and souls has been a decades-long process. During the war in the 1980s and 1990s, churches were often the only institutions left in parts of South Sudan. Church leaders offered spiritual and material help that fostered substantial credibility with local populations.
Over the years, government officials tapped pastors and priests to help mediate tribal conflicts and press for peace agreements. John Chol Daau, the Episcopal priest and former Lost Boy, has served on a government peace commission led by Episcopal Archbishop Daniel Deng.
Church officials say they want to use biblical principles to address spiritual problems that lead to conflict, and to point out problems when needed.
In a joint statement last year by Deng and the Catholic archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, the pair wrote: “We are not politicians. The prophetic voice of the church reads the signs of the times in the light of gospel values and, like the prophets of the Old Testament, calls for a change of heart leading to a change of behavior.”
After the recent fighting, Dinka and Nuer church leaders from Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other denominations issued a statement pleading with South Sudanese citizens not to allow a political conflict to turn into an ethnic war.
Daau says it’s critical to remind Christians from different tribes of their common identity: “We are one community. We are believers in Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Nhial says that’s a message he’s emphasizing among self-identified Christians who sometimes divide along tribal lines—especially those fighting in the current conflict. “They need to know what the Bible tells them,” he says. “Do they know they cannot be divided? Do they know they are one family of God?”
Meanwhile, though resources in South Sudanese churches often are limited, both Nhial and Daau say they are working with church leaders to deliver aid to refugee communities when possible. Other church leaders are already visiting refugee camps to preach, comfort, and pray with those in need.
Those numbers continue to swell, as thousands have fled the country and aid groups struggle to deliver aid to tens of thousands in overcrowded camps in the country. Satellite images have shown dead bodies and burned homes in key embattled towns.
The UN reported attacks on aid convoys had kept vital supplies from reaching vulnerable populations. Many aid groups evacuated their foreign staff to surrounding countries.
The Christian relief group Samaritan’s Purse continues its operations at the Yida refugee camp near the north-south border in South Sudan. The camp hosts nearly 70,000 people who have fled to South Sudan after enduring bombing campaigns in northern Sudan for more than three years.
Some aid workers worry officials in northern Sudan will take advantage of South Sudan’s current crisis to advance their own interests in nearby oil fields.
Ken Issacs of Samaritan’s Purse said the group had enough food on hand to feed Yida refugees through mid-February, but that precarious security conditions could hamper delivery of more aid.
Nhial says some citizens have fled to other parts of the country that have remained peaceful during the conflict, but that some families have separated as they fled. For the former Lost Boy, it’s a sad reality.
“Now there are more lost boys from this fighting,” says Nhial. “But I still have hope that one day there will be no more lost boys in South Sudan.”