by Kendra Hovey
The shipment came down the Nile by boat, where it was transferred onto small makeshift watercrafts, ferried to the riverbank, and then all 6,000 pounds of it carried by hand for a mile up to the village of Piol. This was the Buckeye Clinic’s third shipment of food and supplies since war broke out in South Sudan, and the most challenging; it’s the rainy season and Piol is accessible only by foot or canoe.
Last December, just days after we posted a story about past-speaker Bol Aweng and the Buckeye Health Clinic, the situation in South Sudan changed drastically. When we shared the story, the Clinic, supported almost exclusively by the Columbus community, was up and running and close to completing its final goals. Both Aweng and fellow “Lost Boy” Jok Dau had good news to share, including the unexpected and happy discovery that Aweng’s sister, missing since 1991, was indeed alive and soon would be reunited with the Aweng family in Piol.
But on December 15th, violence broke out between warring political factions, the Buckeye Clinic shifted their efforts to provide needed food and humanitarian aid, and the reunion, of course, did not happen.
Today, the region is under its third cease-fire, this one includes a 45-day period to build a coalition government. Since the fighting began, over 10,000 have been killed, almost 2,000,000 have been displaced and the region is now facing a potential famine, one that is entirely human-made. Most South Sudanese live in rural areas (and with violence turning some cities into ghost towns this percentage has likely increased) where the main source of food is family crops. But because of insecurity and displacement many fields remain fallow.
The Clinic is still providing needed medical care. Luckily, it has not been damaged or looted and has been able to remain open since the crisis began. The first shipment of food and supplies were sent in April. It had an unexpected ripple effect. Most of the community had fled to the marshlands of the Nile. While safer from violence, food is limited (people lived on water lilies and what fish they could catch). And without medicine, clean water and adequate shelter, there is risk of waterborne disease, especially vulnerable are children under five. When the first shipment arrived it was assumed that people would take the food and return to the Nile, but instead a number of them stayed and began to rebuild their homes and plant crops. The support network for the Buckeye Clinic sent two additional shipments over the summer, and is preparing a fourth (all with no administrative costs—receipts, distribution lists, photos and videos are posted on their website, as well as opportunities to donate).
After decades of war, a period of rebuilding and then independence, the people of South Sudan are again threatened—this time by internal strife. So how do we understand this conflict?
There are the factual events. At independence in 2011, Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, became the first President of South Sudan. Riek Machar, who is Nuer, became Vice President. For both, these mirror the leadership roles they held since the end of the civil war in 2005. In July of 2013, Kiir dismissed his cabinet and VP. Machar, interpreting this as a power grab, convenes a December press conference, which Kiir interprets as a coup. Violence erupts.
There is recent history, which tragically can be traced through the traumas experienced by Bol Aweng’s family (and many others). The second civil war between the north and south began in 1983. The village of Piol was attacked in 1987 and Bol Aweng, running for his life at age six, became one of over 36,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. While this conflict still raged, internal strife developed within the South Sudan Resistance. Citing different political goals, Riek Machar (the VP mentioned above) challenged the leadership of John Garang. In 1991, his largely Nuer forces attacked Garang’s home territory—Dinka lands, including Piol. Bol’s mother and sister were abducted. The mother returned, but the daughter was not heard from again, until just last year when she was found living in Nuer lands.
Machar, who received support from the Sudan government in Khartoum, signed an agreement with them in 1997, but in 2002, he rejoined Garang’s Resistance Movement (Garang was killed in a crash in 2005; Kiir was his second in command) and, in 2012, Machar publicly apologized for the massacre of 1991.
And there are the consequences of decades of war. The health delivery system was destroyed and has not been adequately re-developed. One out of five children do not live to age five. South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates, and their literacy rate is the lowest in the world—these are just some of the realities of generation after generation having to live in survival mode.
Is this an inevitable tribal conflict? A battle for political power? For economic control? [After all, oil-rich regions are continually a loci of conflict.] Or a consequence of war’s neglect and stagnation?
And perhaps a more important question: Is there a way forward politically? This remains to be seen. But it’s important to understand that even as the map divides regions and tribes, those lines crisscross everywhere—Nuer helping Dinka, Dinka helping Nuer (and for a less heartwarming example, some Dinka were part of Machar’s group in the 1990s), and those of other tribal affiliations helping both. A Dinka man, for instance, is protecting his two Nuer nieces, even as the girls’ relatives in another area are fighting, albeit reluctantly, against Dinka. “I would save those girls again,” he says, “even if my people are killed, I would rather save a life, any life, rather than take one.” There are many stories like this. No matter how cruel the politics and the violence, there always are.
Seemingly pointless political machinations and mass killings make it difficult for those in the west to watch and, eventually, to care. Bol Aweng understands this. The last year has returned him, quite painfully, to his own trauma and the awful knowledge that it is happening again to others. Though it is hard to witness, he is grateful to those who do. As a child he remembers feeling as if his misery was “imperceptible” to the rest of the world. Now he is here in Columbus, he is raising a family, he is making art, he is improving healthcare, he is reducing infant mortality. “In the world, a lot of bad things happen,” he says, “but if we save the life of one person, this is a big difference we can make in the lives of human beings.”