Ten days before Christmas 2013 a civil war started in the new nation of South Sudan. The events leading up to this are still murky, but have their roots in long-established hostility between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. President Salva Kiir Mayardit claims he acted to prevent a coup plotted by then Vice President Riek Machar but Machar continues to deny this and in turn accuses Kiir of targeting the Nuer out of paranoia and vindictiveness.
Riek Machar is a Nuer leader with a long history of betrayal at both a personal and political level, and involvement in a particularly savage massacre (the Bor massacre in 1991 where Machar’s Nuer’ ‘White Army’ killed over 2,000 Dinka). Salva Kiir’s presidency was becoming increasingly marked by accusations of favouring his Dinka tribe, and brutal curtailments of press freedom.
The South Sudanese diaspora in Australia reacted to the news of the increasing violence in their home country with shock, disbelief, and attempts to promote unity (#WeAreSouthSudan). But by Christmas Day hundreds of people were dead, and thousands displaced.
Salva Kiir speaking at a Christmas service in St Theresa’s Cathedral in Juba called in vain for an end to fighting. “This is our third Christmas in an independent state, and they ruined this Christmas for us. We are not happy because some people are not here . . . Tribal fighting will lead us nowhere.”
Anyone who was around any South Sudanese at the time of the independence vote will remember the excitement and hope, and the dancing, singing and the over the top jubilation when the result was announced and they knew they would get their own country, and an end to over 40 years of fighting.
I first met South Sudanese refugees who had fled from the devastating, long-running war between North and South Sudan when I was tutoring English with the SAIL (Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning) program in Melbourne. The South Sudanese women I worked with were great company- good-humoured, funny, vivacious and optimistic despite the tragedies that had befallen them – their children dying, their husbands, brothers uncles killed, losing everything they had. They were grateful to be safe in Australia, but there was one thing that worried many of the mothers of teenage children – they were losing them.
Coming to Australia as teenagers, with little experience of school, and speaking almost no English, they were put into classes with their age group, where they had almost no chance of coping. So they truanted from school and ran wild, becoming uncontrollable at home, realising their parents couldn’t enforce their authority.
That struck home to me – I’d been there. One of my children went wildly off the rails in his early teens, and although back on the rails now (not a great metaphor but I’ll leave it)- two of his friends didn’t make it – one got accidentally killed spraying graffiti from the top of a moving train and the other died of a heroin overdose). So I knew the dreadful, despairing feeling you wake up to every day when the child you have loved from birth turns into an out-of-control anarchic stranger.
One comfort the South Sudanese mothers had after the independence vote is that they could save up and eventually take their families back to their new country, where their lost teenagers could find a place and settle down. Now each passing year since the outbreak of civil war makes that harder. Each peace agreement has been broken by more fighting, more deaths and displacements, with increasing despair among the South Sudanese here, as well as in South Sudan (And each time I read about some new outbreak of fighting I don’t know whether to cry or just stick pins into effigies of Riek Machar and Salva Kiir).
Young South Sudanese in Melbourne lately have been making the news for all the wrong reasons- assault, housebreaking and car theft. And the news from South Sudan is worse- the continued violence resulting from thousands of young guys being handed guns together with a legacy of ethnic hostility and almost complete lack of accountability. But South Sudan is a big country, and amazingly there are places almost untouched by fighting. And there are many South Sudanese in Australia, still working to help their country.
A South Sudanese friend from a small village in Wau County has for the past 5 years been working to establish a school in his village, sending money back to build the school and networking here to get books, laptops sports uniforms etc. sent over (by air to Juba, then a long and fairly dangerous car journey). There has been lots of fighting in Wau but so far the school and its over 100 pupils have managed to survive unscathed.
Another consequence of the civil war has been the increased hostility between Dinka and Nuer in Australian South Sudanese. I first came across tension between Dinka and Nuer when a Nuer man came to give a talk to a group of mainly Dinka women at the SAIL program, including some from Bor. I couldn’t work out why my lovely friends were so viciously teasing this poor man with offensive remarks about the Nuer. I was told later it was about the Bor massacre.
‘But he wasn’t involved in that!’
‘No but you can’t trust the Nuer’.
The divisions in South Sudan have always been along tribal lines, unlike the decades-long war between North and South Sudan, which is usually seen as having a religious component (between the Muslim North and the Christian/animist South) as well as a racial and economic element — I’ve heard South Sudanese refer to the North Sudanese as ‘Arabs’ — in a way that was far from complimentary, and talk about the time when people from the North took South Sudanese as slaves, as well as exploiting the oil resources of the South).
It’s now coming up to Christmas again, and the inter-tribal hostility in South Sudan has increased to a level where there is talk of ‘ethnic cleansing’ escalating to genocide. Tribal beliefs and customs are strong in South Sudan (Riek Machar actually used Nuer tribal prophesies to advance his career), and because tribal identity is so entrenched, each fresh outbreak of violence leads to increasing bitterness between Dinka and Nuer.
Christmas traditionally in South Sudan is a time for joy and celebration that transcends tribal divisions, however the message of peace and reconciliation looks likely to be largely unheeded this Christmas. But as the saying goes ‘hope springs eternal’ so hoping next year for arms control, accountability for war crimes and leaders not bound by tribalism, and maybe there’ll be a happier Christmas for South Sudan.