I remember looking down on the village in South Sudan as we made our second approach to the dirt landing strip. The first fly-by was to chase the cows off the runway. As we pulled up I saw anti-aircraft guns and several soldiers guarding the strip. At that time it was not yet South Sudan but functioned as an quasi-independent country. Fighting between the north and south had mostly stopped, but official recognition by the UN would only come later.
I had come to South Sudan at the request of a missionary in Uganda. He wanted my agency to secure resources and recruit people to live and work in the region. I had come to determine the viability of the project. I have so many memories from that first trip that occasionally race through my mind. I remember the unofficial government “official” that wanted to stamp our passports. Was that even legal? Our host whom I had just met wanted to collect all of our passports, assuring us he would go see his friend at the “immigration office,” get our passports stamped, and be right back. Not comfortable with his plan, I got on the back of a motorcycle with him and headed off to the local administration office.
The one-room wooden office looked as though it had been recently constructed, though the wood was already grey from the weather. It needed a coat of paint. There were shutters, but no glass in the windows. The door was open which allowed the air and flies better access. On the desk of the administrator was a map. It marked the locations where during the recent war the Sudanese government of the north had dropped cluster bombs on the “rebels” of South Sudan. The kids and farmers were still losing limbs to these unexploded ordinances, so red ink blots covered the map where the bombs had been spotted. It was a warning, a reminder to everyone who entered his office.
After getting the passports taken care of, we got back to our compound, just across the street from the refugee center, only to realize that one of the passports was missing. Had it been stolen or merely misplaced? The whole thing seemed shady given that we had only been on the ground in this unofficial country for an hour. We eventually went back to the administration office and found it on the floor.
I remember the young boys looking through the wrought- iron gate of the refugee camp. One had a homemade slingshot and a dead bird hanging around his neck. Later as we walked through the camp we saw a guy walking along with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher over his shoulder. I saw too many guns to count.
Then there was the evening with the general who controlled the region. I was impressed with his knowledge of international politics and why the U.S. and the EU might be inclined to help his fledgling country. He really liked President George W. Bush. Sitting outside his hut under the mango tree, surrounded by his cows bedded for the night and guards posted at the edges of his compound, he told how the Lord’s Resistance Army had come through the refugee camp and spooked the people there. (Technically, they were Internally Displaced Persons, but he referred to them as refugees.) A few refuges had been killed by the LRA before his men could get there. Many refugees had since abandoned the camp and fled into the nearby village.
Their leaving the camp was a problem for the general, who wanted help resettling the people back into their own villages across South Sudan. They would need water wells and farming implements and seed. They would need schools and medical clinics. He was happy that we were planning to build a facility across from the existing refugee camp, but what he really wanted was for the refugees to go home. From his perspective, the war with the north was over. The Dinka and the Nuer would finally be free of the Muslims in the North. They would have access to revenue from the oil along the border of Sudan, but “clearly” in South Sudan. Things were looking good for the general. It was time for normalcy to return. His daughter would soon be of marrying age and would probably yield him another 15 cows as a bridal price. That was 2006-07.
Now eight years later, “Evangelicals for Peace” is calling for prayer for South Sudan, one of the five least peaceful places on earth. As soon as South Sudan became its own country, tribes carried out raids against each other, annihilating entire villages and stealing each other’s cattle. Civil war has followed the war for independence. The Dinka and Nuer fight. Child soldiers are conscripted. 50,000-100,000 people have been killed. Rape is a common weapon of war. Rumors of coups make people nervous, and the fight over oil rights and cattle destroy hope and inflame passions. Schooling is delayed. Promised improvements to infrastructure and medical facilities are denied. People who can get out leave. Chronic anxiety and desperation haunt those who remain. Crops cannot be planted and harvested with regularity. Famine now threatens the region and international peace forces are called upon to intervene. Normalcy for South Sudan has been denied.
I long ago lost touch with the general and the people that I met. I suspect they were swept up in the conflict, forced to align with one side or the other simply to survive. I have wondered if the general got his price for his daughter.
I remember seeing the hope in some of the small villages as church foundations were dug. Music played on homemade harps. The people danced and sang. Spring had come to South Sudan in 2007, but the familiar pains of winter followed too quickly. War and death are always near by. So pray for South Sudan, and be grateful. Life is much harder for some people in the world than for the rest of us.