By Esther Sprague
February 13, 2014 - I’ve been a Sudan activist since 2003 when I met Mamer, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who was concerned about the genocide in Darfur. Together we celebrated the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and its promise of democratic transformation – a promise that was broken five years later as we witnessed rigged elections that were sanctioned by an indifferent international community and that guaranteed Southern Sudanese second class citizenship. As a result, Southern Sudanese voted for independence; Mamer began to re-build his life in his new country; and I continued to support those in Sudan who struggle and suffer to establish the country envisioned in the CPA – a country “based on the free will of its people, democratic governance, accountability, equality, respect, and justice for all citizens.”
For South Sudanese and friends of Sudan and South Sudan, the events that unfolded in Juba on December 15, 2013 and spread throughout parts of the country were a shock and disappointment. While it was understood that South Sudan had its problems, we believed that fundamentally its leaders believed in and would uphold the vision and values of the New Sudan, which they had fought so long for and at such a great price. It is estimated that 2.5 million people died and 4.5 million were displaced during a 22 year civil war between the government of Sudan and rebels (now leaders) from Southern Sudan – a war fought for freedom, democracy, justice, and equality.
As stories began to surface about the devastating brutality that South Sudanese inflicted upon each, I lost hope. How could people who had treated each other so badly ever live side by side again? How could peace and the promise of prosperity ever stand a chance? I traveled with these doubts and concerns to Addis Ababa to attend the Sudan and South Sudan Civil Society Forum hosted by the Darfur Relief and Documentation Centre. There and in subsequent conversations, for me, glimmers of hope emerged.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Historically, Sudanese have been robbed of opportunity by leaders who have manipulated their differences - race, religion, tribe and gender - in order to secure personal power and wealth. In Sudan, the fight is fueled between Arabs and Africans or between Muslims, Christians and those who practice traditional religions. In South Sudan, tribal affiliations are used to advance political gains; and in both countries, women are oppressed rather than empowered to help build truly great nations. As a result, everyone suffers except those at the top who benefit from the dysfunction.
But in Addis at the Civil Society Forum, a different picture emerged. Africans, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Dinka, Nuer, Sudanese, South Sudanese, men and women sat together for three days to learn from each other and to discuss the problems that plague both Sudan and South Sudan. For three days, relationships were built, ideas exchanged and ultimately resolutions drafted that were shared with the African Union and the international community – a real-time example of African solutions for African problems.
While in Addis, I witnessed the outpouring of support by the international community as a ceasefire was signed for South Sudan. I was struck by the anguish expressed by international leaders who believe in and have invested heavily in the government and people of South Sudan, and I was inspired by their commitment to stand by and assist the parties as they resolve differences for the benefit of the country and the region. The room originally arranged for the ceasefire could not hold the numbers of South Sudanese, Sudanese, international leaders, NGOs and press that seemed to care about the fate of South Sudan. And yet, the question in the air was and is, “will the ceasefire hold? Is peace in South Sudan possible?”
Amazed by the events in Addis, I traveled to Nairobi to visit Mamer. He introduced me to his friends from Bor - young men who had experienced firsthand the recent violence in Juba and Bor. These young men expressed, with varying degrees of aggravation, different experiences and viewpoints as well as many questions for the international community about perceived injustices. But as we shared information and acknowledged mistakes, a small transformation began to take place as these young men became less frustrated and instead begin to identify and agree upon the necessary components for a strong country – a country they still believe in and are committed to building. In particular, they recognized the need for good governance, accountability, effective resource management and the protection of human rights.
Later I met with Mamer’s wife, Aliet, who ran with her five year old son to hide in the bush as the fight moved to her village. She explained that she and others didn’t know why fighting had returned, because for the most part, people from different tribes were living side by side in peace. She explained that although it would be difficult, if there is peace, “we will just return to our homes.” In some cases, that process has already begun.
Last weekend, I traveled to Washington, DC to help facilitate an Institute for Sustainable Peace reconciliation and healing workshop organized by South Sudan Women United, a Diaspora group based in the U.S. with connections to women in South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere. These extraordinary women from different tribes in South Sudan sat together for three days and listened to each other’s pain, grief, frustration, guilt and loneliness. They asked forgiveness for contributing, even as silent bystanders, to the conflict in South Sudan; they envisioned a brighter future for the country they love; and they strengthened relationships that were tested by the unimaginable. These women, through a message to the mediators in Addis, challenged the negotiating parties to bravely follow their example.
It’s almost a cliché to say the hope of a nation is its people, but it’s true. I traveled to Addis with a heavy heart, and although I know there are tremendous challenges to overcome in both Sudan and South Sudan, after spending five days in East Africa with an incredibly diverse group of Sudanese and South Sudanese and then to spend the weekend with South Sudan Women United, as always, I am overcome and uplifted by such compassion, brilliance, resilience and determination, under the most difficult of circumstances, to achieve what seems nearly impossible.
The February 4th statement by the Catholic Bishops of Sudan and South Sudan following their meetings in Juba, says it best, “The reconciliation we seek is a process that involves truth telling, knowing what happened when violence erupted between various communities, and why… There are no quick-fixes to the deep social divisions and trauma within our society. With time and by promoting processes that are holistic and people-centred, we believe that our painful history and our trauma can be healed and our nation reconciled.” Throughout my travels, I have seen this process work. It is difficult, it requires courage, but it may be the only hope.
Esther Sprague is the Founder of Sudan Unlimited, which seeks to support Sudanese and South Sudanese in their efforts to secure and enjoy freedom, justice, equality, democracy, peace and prosperity.