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Finding Hope in South Sudan: Part 2 Persistent Violence, Unstable Peace

Newly arrived South Sudanese refugees carry their belongings at the Nyumanzi reception center in Adjumani, a district in northern Uganda. Since the first week of January 2016, Uganda has seen an influx of 4,587 refugees from the neighboring war-torn country of South Sudan. | Photo courtesy © UNHCR/Isaac Kasamani

Newly arrived South Sudanese refugees carry their belongings at the Nyumanzi reception center in Adjumani, a district in northern Uganda. Since the first week of January 2016, Uganda has seen an influx of 4,587 refugees from the neighboring war-torn country of South Sudan. | Photo courtesy © UNHCR/Isaac Kasamani

October 3, 2015 3:06 p.m. EST

“Dear Will,

We are concerned because last night and tonight people are out of Mundri again! There was report of shooting today at Jambo and burnings along the road to Lanyi and now there is rumours that some angry boys are planning to revenge on army! I can not verify as most people in Mundri cannot be reached on phone.

Now the conference on peace of next week is questionable. But we continue to pray for an end to this.”

October 3, 2015 9:38 p.m. EST

“Dear Will,

Thanks for your reply and prayers. But I heard that fighting had just started in Mundri as the boys attacked Mundri garrison! Certainly there will be no peace conference as scheduled!”

October 6, 2015 1:03 p.m. EST

“Dear Will,

Thanks for the message and prayers. Today at dawn there was yet another attack on army garrison which took longer than last time. Also more shooting of helicopter gunships between Amadi and Mundri junction.”

My wife, Theresa, and I lived in Mundri, South Sudan, for five months from October 2014 to March 2015. We planned to be there for five years, but early in March we were forced to evacuate due to the threat of violence. After bouncing around East Africa for several months, filling roles within various missionary communities, we returned home to Bloomington for a short break. After returning to the U.S. in early September, emails like these from a friend became common.

Since last October, Mundri has teetered between unstable and outright dangerous. There are reports of 200 homes in the small town being burned down, although we don’t know how many in total. The homes in our compound, right next to the Bishop of Mundri’s, have been looted. They are still standing, however, and we are grateful for that. Many local people haven’t returned to Mundri — they’ve been hiding in the bush for more than three months.

Since the emails in October, there have been times of hope and times of devastation for the people of Mundri. Shortly after the emails above, several bishops in the Episcopal Church of Sudan met in Mundri with both army and community representatives and brokered a peace agreement between the local people and government soldiers. It ended with a church service where the two groups sat intermingled. Within a week, though, the government sent an attack helicopter to the rebel camp and killed several people, effectively nullifying the peace agreement and sending the few people who had returned to Mundri back into the bush. Our emotions would ebb and flow with each new report or email.

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Peace agreements seem to be worth very little in South Sudan, yet they are made regularly. That is not to say peace agreements are hard to form — it’s that there are multiple rebel groups operating in South Sudan. Just because one group signs a peace deal doesn’t mean the others agree. Fighting could end in one city and continue in another for months.

Unfortunately, this has become common across South Sudan. Many parts of the country that were previously stable have become tense, at a minimum, and deserted, at most, like Mundri.

The increasing violence across the country has led to more people fleeing their homes. Since December 2013, 1.69 million South Sudanese individuals have become displaced within the South Sudan border and 776,869 others have become refugees in neighboring countries, such as Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

A recent survey of 1,525 people conducted in South Sudan by the South Sudan Law Society and the United Nations Development Programme found “41 percent of respondents presented symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate consistent with post-genocide Rwanda.” Coincidentally, “41 percent said they have witnessed a friend or family member being killed.”

A refugee from South Sudan clears the bush to build her house at Maaji refugee resettlement in Adjumani. | Photo courtesy © UNHCR/Isaac Kasamani

A refugee from South Sudan clears the bush to build her house at Maaji refugee resettlement in Adjumani. | Photo courtesy © UNHCR/Isaac Kasamani

In August 2015, the Compromise Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement–In Opposition (SPLM–IO, also referred to as “rebels”), led by the former vice president, Riek Machar, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, or “government”), led by President Salva Kiir. While this agreement was, and is, a great step toward peace in South Sudan, it hasn’t stopped the fighting. Both sides have been accused of violating the agreement numerous times.

More recently, on December 25, 2015, President Kiir made an executive order to break South Sudan into 28 states, compared to the previous ten. This has created tension between the rebels and the government, and Voice of America reports that “critics say it undermines the power-sharing deal” the two sides agreed upon in August.

Regardless, Theresa, our teammate Justin, and I returned to Africa at the end of January. We are living in Arua, in northwest Uganda. It is a strategic location for us as it is close to the South Sudan border and is within an hour of two refugee camps in Uganda, to where many people from South Sudan have fled. We plan to visit the camps, as well as work with refugees from Mundri who live in Arua, to help and encourage as we are able. We also want to make a few trips to Mundri this spring, and living in Arua gives us quick access (one hour by plane). We want to assess the damage to the town and our compound, possibly bring in food and relief supplies, and help the Mundri community in any ways needed. But a visit will only be possible if the current situation changes.

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As I stated in part one of this series, I believe hopelessness leads to unthinkable acts. It appears, and, for good reason, many people in South Sudan have lost hope. How do you maintain hope when you’ve been living in the bush for three months? How do you maintain hope when reports say the army is, for no reason, abducting local youth? How do you maintain hope when the rebels, who say they are on your side, commit the same atrocities by abducting women, claiming they are army informants?

I don’t have answers, and I’m not saying I would feel or act any differently than these people are. Unthinkable acts happen when hope fades, and I’m not immune to hopelessness. None of us are.

Is it possible to hope on behalf of a person or country? Is it possible for Theresa and me and you and the Bloomington community to hold out hope on behalf of South Sudan?

I think so. I hope so.

While we are not the answer to the troubles that plague South Sudan, we are eager to be part of the solution as soon as we can return.

Until then … we hope.

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Contributors
Will Reed
Will Reed and his wife, Theresa, are missionaries, most recently in Mundri, South Sudan, with “Serge: Grace at the Fray.” Born and raised in Bloomington, Will graduated from Bloomington High School South in 2002 and Indiana University in 2007. Will and Theresa have been married for seven years, spending three of them in Africa. They both enjoy good books, long hikes, and IU basketball. You can follow their journey more closely on their personal blog, www.willandtheresareed.blogspot.com.
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