On 13th Feb, I was asked to speak about the crisis at a fundraising event for a charity. Below follows a transcript of my speech.
On the 23rd December, a little over a week after the outbreak of the violence in Juba which spread with such deadly speed and devastating effect, I was contacted by a group of women of the South Sudanese community.
They were angry and deeply disappointed by the deafening silence of the London community in the face of what was turning out to be the biggest crisis our young nation has had to face since its independence from the Sudan in 2011.
I was forced to pause and seriously reflect.
If I am to be honest, I knew this crisis was coming. The rising tide of vitriol and mutual recrimination with the ruling party needed an outlet. Violence was a distinct possibility. But when it erupted, the scale and pace of it caught everyone by surprise. These are truly troubling and painful times for us South Sudanese. 74,000 households or 1 in 20 have been forced to leave their homes to escape the violence. The majority of these are children and youth under the age of 18.
Faced with the rapid unraveling of an already fragile sense of nationhood, I, like many others, withdrew into the warm embrace of my own ethnic community. Instead of thinking of the suffering of countrymen and women caught in the path of rampaging armies, I was more concerned that the violence should not spread to my homeland of Greater Equatoria. But those women of the community shook me out it, and made me reassess what it means to be South Sudanese.
We are a country of 8 million souls, traditionally organised into 64 tribes and speaking almost as many languages. We are a rural peoples, thinly spread across a land the size of France. A patchwork country of ancestral lands crudely stitched together.
To the north east, lie the vast clay plains of greater Upper Nile with its magnificent dry season grazing grounds. The White Nile from which it gets its name, winds through the region and finally spills it waters to the north. These are the lands of the Shilluk, whose divine kings, the ‘Reths’ are each believed to be the re-incarnation of their very first leader.
Far to the south, way beyond the oil fields, where others may have found the land harsh and inhospitable, the pastoral nomadic Dinka, Nuer and Murle peoples, whose activities continue to be organised around the cattle camp have thrived. As was noted by a British survey team nearly 70 years ago;
It is not easy to realise the overwhelmingly important part that cattle play in their lives; and to their acquisition almost everything is sacrificed.
This restive region, the most populace in all South Sudan, has never truly known peace. Since the comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005, its people have suffered the persistent destabilisation of massive cattle raids and counter raids, involving thousands of heads of cattle and hundreds of heavily armed youth. They have also suffered and continue to suffer the abuses of rebellious militias and a heavy handed national military. It is a tragedy that it is this region, which has already suffered so much, that is at the heart of the current crisis. But, it is in this region that the violence is largely contained.
Striking to the North West, we eventually come to the “Bahr el Ghazal” region. This region gets its name from the river, the “sea of gazelles”, which sluggishly drains westward from the Sudd wetlands. Beyond the truly vast grazing grounds of the large Dinka clans, the Rek, the Malual and the Agar, can be found many smaller, scattered agricultural communities such as the Jo-Luo, the Banda, the Balanda-Boor and the Ndogo (the tribe from which my maternal grandmother hails) who live amongst the rugged plains, forests and isolated rocky hills.
And finally, to the South, lie the rich ironstone lands of Equatoria which unlike the grassy plains to the north with their seasonal inundations, favoured a more settled form of community. From the pastoral Taposa to the east, to the Madi fisherfolk in the centre, to the agricultural Azande to the west, the village and not the cattle camp is the primary focal point of social organisation. It is South Sudan in microcosm. And it is here that we find the community at Ibba. A community we have come together to help.
So, let me linger here a little. The international media and community often neglect the stabilising quality of Equatoria for South Sudan. Equatoria is composed of many communities with diverse cultures and traditions accounting for 33% of the country’s population. Inter-ethnic conflict in Equatoria (we are not immune) is quickly contained and dealt with through respected and ancient traditional mechanisms that have stood the test of time. Due to these long established mechanisms and the number of communities packed into such a relatively small region, Equatoria is often thought and talked of by the other peoples of South Sudan as if it were a single tribe. The Equatorian peoples have, to a degree, internalised and embraced this concept. Consequently as a region, Equatoria is stable enough to fully capitalise on development initiatives and can serve as a springboard for the development of the rest of South Sudan.
Though there is tragedy today in South Sudan, there is still hope. I heard an inspirational young man speak yesterday. He had served as a child soldier in the 2nd Sudanese civil war. In response to the call for mobilisation of the youth in support of the war effort, he was adamant in his refusal to enlist. He had grown up with war, but now he had found peace. He had the chance to improve his life and that of my family. How can he go back to war? How can he go back to the army to fight with Southerners again? I have heard this time and time again from the youth in South Sudan.
I have heard it from the strong and resilient women of our community here in London. We have all been touched by the horrors of war and the indiscriminate suffering it brings. Something we hoped we would never face again. I will tell you now, in South Sudan, at the grass roots there is no appetite for conflict. In its place is an appetite for peace and the opportunity at personal, regional and national development.
On the 23rd December, we held a community meeting to discuss the crisis and how we as a community in the diaspora should respond. I will close with these three resolutions that were made that day.
- We resolve to not remain silent and to use whatever means and resources are available to alleviate the immediate suffering of our countrymen and women in the homeland.
- We resolve to rebuild the hard earned unity that the South Sudanese people are gradually losing, starting first with ourselves in the diaspora so as to be an inspiration for those in the homeland.
- We resolve to show our support for and solidarity with all community members who have lost loved ones, irrespective of tribe or ideological persuasion.