The Cost of War

Today marks one month since my evacuation from South Sudan. It is hard to believe that the conflict continues to rage in South Sudan. I was a bit naïve when we departed Juba in December. I was thinking that I would go on my two week Christmas holiday, the fighting would subside and we would be back in Juba by mid-January. Little did I know that the fighting that started in Juba would sweep the country and reopen old ethnic wounds that have plagued the region for years.  

Living in South Sudan, I always knew that the smallest spark could ignite a civil war. But it breaks my heart that a political dispute within the ruling party has cost the lives of thousands of innocent victims. Last week, an overcrowded boat with people fleeing the violence in Malakal, a city in the northern part of South Sudan sank killing more than 200 people. The exact number of people on the boat is unknown but what we do know is that these innocent victims died fleeing the fighting between the pro-government and anti-government forces. International organizations put the death toll from this conflict over 10,000 with more than 500,000 displaced in various refugee camps.

We had a staff member that was forced to flee the fighting, hiding for days in the forest until it was safe to enter the UN camp. We had another staff member robbed and another shot. Many South Sudanese have escaped to neighboring countries. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 32,000 South Sudanese citizens have sought refuge in neighboring countries, the bulk, around 24,000 in Uganda, entering at a rate of 3,000 a day.

I do not know when this conflict will end. Both sides do not seem interested in bringing the fighting to a quick end. There was an announcement today of a possible cease fire agreement but the hard work will be finding peace. Innocent citizens have borne the brunt of this conflict. I continue to lose hope that South Sudan will put away its weapons and instead choice the voting box to make changes in the country.

Tea Party John…

What started as an SPLM party problem now affects everyone. This is now a South Sudan problemRev. James Ninrew (South Sudan)

It has been nearly four weeks since the conflict in South Sudan started and I do not think the pro-government forces and the anti-government forces (as labeled by the U.S. Government) are anywhere near a cease fire, much less a peace agreement. While the pro-government and anti-government forces continue to wrangle over the political leadership of South Sudan, their conflict has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the death of thousands of innocent citizens.

 JN & SFB

This is my friend and colleague John. It has been a joy getting to know John since arriving in South Sudan. We have had many debates and discussions on the future and direction of South Sudan. In addition, we have discussed the foreign policy of President Barack Obama, “Obamacare” and the tea party. John recently received an email from the Tea Party Express soliciting his assistance in helping the group meet their fundraising goals. It is fun debating with John because he always wants to get in the last word – which is interesting because we share the habit of having the last word on most conversations. Everyday John gives me grief about leaving the office at 4:30pm. His desk is at the office door so he knows who comes and goes…and at what time! I have tried to explain to him that living at AFEX, which is where our office is located, I am on the clock 24/7. But every day, he would smile and say to me, “heading home?”

The picture of John and I was taken at the IRI Christmas party held on December 14. That party now seems light-years away because the conflict started on December 15. I never had an opportunity to even download the pictures from my phone.

John has been on my mind since I was evacuated from South Sudan. John is a member of the Nuer tribe, the tribe associated with the former Vice President Riek Machar and his anti-government forces. With little evidence and absolutely no legal authority, the soldiers of the pro-government forces began rounding up Nuer citizens in Juba when the conflict started. In some cases, they killed Nuers on the spot, no questions asked. Others were imprisoned. In other parts of the country, anti-government forces targeted Dinkas in retribution, killing them on the spot. John escaped both imprisonment and death and sought refuge at the UN compound in Juba. David, another colleague who is also Nuer was not so lucky. He was imprisoned with other Nuer tribe members. His account of his time in prison is both horrifying and depressing.

During his imprisonment, pro-government forces would position their guns in the windows of the jail cell and indiscriminately fire their guns at prisoners. Many were killed but David survived because he was buried under his fellow prisoners who were shot and killed. He was eventually released and fearing for his life, sought refuge in the UN compound, where he also sought medical attention for gunshots he sustained.

 It truly breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes to think about what John and David (along with others) are enduring in South Sudan. South Sudan is their home but the government has failed to protect its citizens. John and David are young South Sudanese citizens working to move South Sudan towards democracy. Sadly they are now causalities of a brutal conflict that has engulfed the entire country. What started as a political conflict has opened old ethnic wounds. John and David now live in squalor-like conditions in a UN compound that is overrun with refugees seeking the safety of the international world. I can only pray that once this conflict has ended and South Sudan is moving towards peace, that John and David will hold no grudge or ill-will towards the men perpetrating these atrocities. The question that is asked over and over is “can South Sudan find a peaceful solution to this conflict?” Honestly, I do not know.

 South Sudan has faced stiff odds before, but the majority of the country was united against a common foe – Sudan. Now, the nation has splintered along tribal lines and faces a significant uphill battle to bring an end to a deadly political situation.  Peace talks have begun in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but the outlook is bleak because some very important institutions are not seated at the negotiation table. I, along with the wold will wait and see what becomes of the newest country to join the international world.

An article on the UN compound in Juba. http://www.arabnews.com/news/505736

DSC_0030

I had planned my Monday (January 6th) several days in advance to make sure I would be well rest for the 4:30am kickoff. I initially planned to be sleep by 8pm. However, the hotel I am staying in – the Villa Rosa Kempinski has turned down service and I was not sure how to decline the turndown service as there is no hang tag for the door. So I waited until the housekeeping staff knocked on the door at 8:45pm. I later discovered that there is a button you push in your room that declines housekeeping…

As I was cheering for one of Auburn’s four touchdowns, there was a knock on the door-actually she rang the doorbell (yes, the hotel has a doorbell system for all the hotel rooms). I initially tried to ignore it and hoped that the visitor would go away. I assumed it was hotel security telling me that I was distributing the other guests. Turns out, she was there to deliver tea that I didn’t order. I guess the hotel knew I needed a pick me up.

My internet connection could not keep up with Auburn’s no-huddle offense. I only saw about 60 percent of Auburn’s plays because the connection often stalled. The connection would buffer and then start again. I also missed an Auburn touchdown. While the hotel did not have the Super Sports channel I needed to watch the game live, it did have the channel that was replaying the game Tuesday afternoon. While sadly I knew the outcome of the game, it was nice to catch the plays that I had missed because of the internet connection.

At the end of the third quarter, my computer froze and a blue screen appeared. I was concern that my computer was on the verge of crashing. It was a false alarm. I had trouble getting the video feed again so I decided to listened to the ESPN radio feed after that blue screen incident.

Sunrise
I was also able to experience an amazing sunrise over the Nairobi skyline. The few times I have experienced an African sunrise was because I was up watching an Auburn game.

As I was watching the replay of the game in the hotel bar, my waiter (James) asked me to explain the rules to American football. I told him it would be difficult for me to explain American football in the limit time we had but I would do my best. After about ten minutes, he told me that the game looked violent, which he said made sense because Americans are very violent. I chuckled and told him that he needed to stop watching American movies because it is not as violent as they portray us in the movies.

It was a great game and Auburn had every opportunity to win the game. It was a typical Auburn game but didn’t end in typical Auburn fashion. Now I await the start of the 2014 season and the introduction of the college football playoff.

To wash away my game day blues, I decided to take a dip in the pool. It was a beautiful day in Nairobi and a great day for a swim.

Pool at VRK

All Orange and All In

all orange

My game day gear. Despite I will not be in California, I will be All Orange and All In here in Nairobi Kenya.

Well the holidays are over and I still am not sure of when/or if I will make it back to South Sudan. I was praying for a peaceful end to the conflict so I would be able to return after the start of the New Year but no peace agreement has been agreed to and a ceasefire seems an unlikely reality. The bright spot in the midst of this unfortunate tragedy is tonight’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game. As an Auburn fan I am still in a state of shock that Auburn finished the season ranked number 2 and now playing for another National Championship.

For me, this has been a special season of Auburn football. Yes, I am sure most Auburn fans would say that – especially after the 3-9 season we endured in 2012. However, Saturdays (and Sunday mornings) took on new meanings for me in South Sudan. It was my connection back to the United States. In August of 2013, I jumped at the opportunity to move to South Sudan to work with the International Republican Institute. But what I would later come to realize was magnitude of my decision. While I didn’t find living in Juba, South Sudan extremely difficult, I did miss the life that I left in Washington, D.C. I missed my family and friends that had made D.C. so special.

So how did the Auburn football team help me settle into South Sudan? For one, Saturday game days were the only consistent aspect of my life in South Sudan. Saturdays meant finding a way to experience the Auburn football game. It was difficult to watch the football game so I subscribed to the Auburn network so I could listen to the Auburn announcers call the game. Saturday also meant a phone call back to the states to discuss the game that I had just heard either with my parents or with friends. Each Saturday, I was able to step away from the stress and heat of South Sudan and participate in a weekly tradition – even though that tradition was happening thousands of miles away and eight hours behind South Sudan. What brought joy to my heart was each Monday my coworkers (even a South Sudanese coworker who spent time in the US) would ask me “did Auburn win this weekend?” I think they could always tell because of the smile on my face and the fact that I wore orange and blue on Mondays!

And who can forget the win against Alabama on November 30th, Chris Davis’ return of a failed Alabama field goal for a touchdown. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t watch the game but what brought joy to my heart was all the Facebook posts, text messages, tweets and phone calls that I received from friends all over the world congratulating me on Auburn’s big win (as if I scored the winning touchdown) and telling me that they were Auburn fans because of me.

I am hoping to return to South Sudan very soon but Saturdays won’t be the same since football season is ending. But regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game (a win would be better than a loss), I will forever hold this football season in special regards. 2010’s national championship season was awesome as I was able to travel to Phoenix, Arizona to celebrate the victory, but 2013 season helped me in my adjustment to South Sudan and brought a moment of distraction in the midst of a terrible conflict.

 War Eagle! Go Auburn!

“A Prophet of Doom”

Background on the Situation in South Sudan

I was planning to post some information about the crisis in South Sudan but I was initially unable to access the internet on my laptop. It turns out that the lack of connectivity was what I needed to enjoy my Christmas vacation. I have received all types of comments regarding the situation in South Sudan and in response to some of my posts on Twitter. One comment that caught my attention was posted on Twitter in response to my celebratory comments of being evacuated out of Juba. The person asked – What about the South Sudanese who gave you happy times in their country? It is a valid question and I can tell you that it is a sad feeling leaving friends in hostile territory. But there is very little that I can do to change the situation in South Sudan. The realization is that the government of South Sudan has failed its citizens. The leaders were elected to implement a vision and sworn to protect and serve the people of South Sudan. However, the leaders are now engaged in a battle over political power that has reopened ethnic wounds that the country has been trying to healed since becoming independent two years ago.

The situation in South Sudan is very complicated. Most news articles have tried to sell the situation as ethnic unrest. In some aspects, this is true but it does not get to the bottom of the crisis. As I have mention before, the people of South Sudan spent nearly half a century engaged in a civil war with the Government of Sudan. The country finally gained independence in July of 2011.  Independence only brought an unofficial end to the conflict with Sudan; it did not heal the ethnic and tribal wounds that had been a causality of war.

South Sudan is made up of various tribes of which the Dinka and Nuer tribes are the two largest groups. The current President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe and the former Vice President and current leader of the rebel forces, Riek Machar is a member of the Nuer tribe. In July of 2013, President Kiir issued several decrees shrinking the size of the government and dismissing Riek Machar as Vice President of South Sudan. After being relieved of his office, Machar made his intentions known that he would challenge President Kiir for Chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a move that if successful would make him the SPLM candidate for President in 2015. Since that time, Machar has made numerous statements regarding the President’s leadership style, his ability to work with leaders from the SPLM and what Machar calls Kiir’s flagrant abuse of the party’s constitution. While these comments may sound harsh, they were made within the “limited” political space that exists in South Sudan. Machar even held a press conference with other leaders of the SPLM calling out the actions of the president.

On the night December 15 clashes broke out in a barrack close to the city centre of Juba shortly before midnight and spread across the city. Soldiers loyal to Machar refused to be disarmed and attacked. Residents locked themselves in their homes or tried to flee to safer areas. President Kiir held a press conference on Monday, December 16 and blamed troops loyal to former vice president Machar for what President Kiir described as a “failed coup attempt.” The president used the opportunity to take out his political opponents by labeling the conflict as a coup. Machar was able to escape from Juba and as the conflict has spread he has mobilized his network of supporters, mostly people from the Nuer tribe. Fighting throughout the country has broken down by tribal lines. There were reports that Dinka soldiers were going house to house searching for Neur soldiers. Unconfirmed reports stated that Dinka soldiers were killing any Nuer people they came across in their search in Juba. In response, Nuer soldiers began attacking various cities and targeting Dinka soldiers. The cycle of violence has engulfed the entire country.

History has a way of repeating itself and President Kiir has deemed Machar a “prophet of doom.” In a speech before the crisis started, Kiir stated that the government will “not allow the incidents of 1991 to repeat themselves again.” Kiir was referring to the 1991 Bor Massacre. This is an analysis of what happened in 1991 as described by Professor Phillip Roessler.

In 1991, Machar launched a failed bid to overthrow the then-leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), John Garang. The failed coup triggered an intra-SPLA civil war and large-scale violence along ethnic lines. Machar was prominently involved, mobilizing support from his co-ethnics and targeting Dinka co-ethnics of John Garang, including in the notorious Bor Massacre in November 1991, in which it is estimated at least 2,000 perished. Over the next decade, Machar would ally with the central government in Khartoum and continue to fight against the SPLA until he reconciled with Garang and rejoined the SPLM in 2002. The reunification of the SPLA was integral to the rebels’ ability to win the right to independence.

The reports that continue to trickle out of South Sudan are both depressing and disappointing. The senseless killing of citizens, the deepening of ethnic conflict in the country and the selfish leaders that are willing to drag the country into a civil war to protect their political power has taken the country in the wrong direction. Progress was always going to be slow in South Sudan because of the enormous challenges that the country faces but the actions of the last three weeks makes going forward very difficult.

I wanted to include a few pictures from the days leading up to my evacuation from South Sudan. Most of the pictures are from the compound where I live and the process at the airport.

Evacuation Day 2

 

Initially, I was told that I would only be able to take a backpack with me. But I was also advised to pack a suitcase if the instructions change. And if I am unable to return to South Sudan, I decided to pack up my apartment in my trunks. Either my company will ship my items to me or I made it very easy for the looters to walk away with my things. We will see what happens…

Evacuation Day 6

 

My coworkers and I having dinner as we await news about the situation in Juba and the evacuation process.

Evacuation Day

 

The start of the evacuation from our compound. Roughly six organizations live at AFEX.

Evacuation Day 3

 

The registration process at the airport for American citizens. It was very hot waiting in the sun. However, the Americans were very efficient and organized.

Evacuation Day 5

 

Walking out to the airplane that the American government had organized to evacuate American citizens. Next stop – Nairobi.

Evacuation Day 4

 

High in the African sky. Most of the people on our flight were dual passport holders – South Sudan and USA. But after a few terrifying few days, we were on our way to Nairobi.

Well I have safely arrived in Frankfurt, Germany. It was quite challenging getting out of South Sudan but thanks to the efficiency of the U.S. government, I was able to secure a seat on one of the planes that was charged with evacuating American citizens. Initially, my organization tried to depart on Wednesday afternoon but the South Sudanese government was sending conflicting signals about who could fly out of the airport. The President of South Sudan and the Minister of Information were asking citizens to return to business as usual as the government had “put down” the attempted coup. But at the same time, gun fire could still be heard in the distance. The Government of South Sudan (GoSS) did not want ex-patriots (ex-pats) leaving the country in mass numbers because it would send the signal that the country was in crisis (which it was – and still is).

My colleagues and I gathered at our office on Wednesday to start the process of traveling to the airport. We had heard reports that the road from our compound to the airport was clear as the fighting was concentrated on the other side of Juba. However, as we were loading the Land Cruisers, word came that the company did not want to send in an aircraft because they feared that GOSS would not allow the aircraft to takeoff. So we were told that the flight was rescheduled for Thursday morning. It was a demoralizing blow as we were all prepared and ready to leave South Sudan. While our compound was never threatened or near the fighting, the constant gun fire and explosions and the unconfirmed reports that were being reported on twitter were unnerving and emotionally draining. There were reports of people being arrested that I had recently worked with on various political workshops. The situation in South Sudan was (and continues to be) deteriorating and you did not know who was next on their target list. In my eyes, it was best to leave the country. In addition, the U.S. advised U.S. citizens in South Sudan to leave as soon as possible and the U.S. government would be providing planes to take citizens out of the country.

An hour after our flight was canceled, word was sent to our office by the U.S. Embassy that there was a plane leaving later that evening that would be taking U.S. citizens to Nairobi. A colleague and I were urged to go to the airport and register with the flight. At around 2:00pm we headed to their airport and were able to get on the last U.S. flight out of Juba. It was a chaotic experience managing Juba’s tiny airport terminal. The plane took off at 5:45pm and landed in Nairobi at 7:15pm. I was happy to be out of South Sudan but sad to leave my South Sudanese colleagues who would have to continue to live through this deadly situation. However, Peter, one of our organization’s drivers told us that once the Uganda/South Sudan border was reopened, people would be flooding out of South Sudan into Uganda – which many people were planning to do for the Christmas holidays. My ex-pat colleagues were able to catch the flight out on Thursday and arrived in Nairobi later that afternoon. We were reunited in the hotel.

South Sudan is in desperate need of prays…

  •  Please pray that this political crisis will come to an end very soon. The citizens of South Sudan are a war-weary people and in desperate need of a government that desires peace over conflict.
  • Please pray for selfless leaders who are willing to put country and citizens first and not their political career.
  • Please pray that the South Sudanese citizens are able to return to their homes without violence and retribution.

I will be posting pictures soon from the evacuation process. I have been unable to access my computer.

The Bad News…

I was awakened last night by my colleagues informing me that there was fighting between the military and civilians in the streets of Juba. Reports have been unclear and there has been no journalistic reporting on the incident. Gun fire was initially heard at 10:30pm last night and has continued into the morning. You can hear gun fire and explosions in the distance. What I have been able to gather is that the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has been unable to deal with the division among the leaders of the party. This is not new news and most political observers had hoped that the party would deal with the divisions using the bylaws and constitution of their party. However, the meeting of the National Liberation Council was unable to mend the division and now fighting among the various factions is taking place in the streets of Juba. Twitter is basically the only way to get updates on the situation and as you know, there are a lot of rumors and false information being posted on Twitter. International NGOs have been told to shelter in place until further notice. We have internet and some mobile services.

The Good News…

sujuna

Who would have thought that Auburn University, posting a miserable 3-9 record in College Football last year would pull off numerous upsets and earned a spot in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game? The Auburn Tigers are heading to Pasadena to take on the Florida State Seminoles. I am still in a bit of shock that Auburn is playing for their second national championship in four years, and a school from Alabama is playing in a fifth national championship game. Alabama played in the game in 2009, Auburn in 2010, Alabama in 2011 and 2012 and now Auburn. It goes to show you why football is considered a religion in the American South.

Unlike the Iron Bowl, where I was traveling in Rwanda and unable to watch the game, I did not want to miss the SEC Championship game. The security situation in Juba is rather dicey and expats are encouraged not to be out in the streets late at night. Most NGOs have a curfew, some as early as 8:00pm. The only place to watch the SEC Championship game was at the U.S. Embassy Residence, where you can enjoy the Air Force Network (AFN). The game started at midnight, which meant that if I went to the Embassy to watch the game, I would be there the entire night. I would not be able to leave when the game ended, and would have to arrive at least four hours before the game started.

I arrived at the Embassy at 8:30pm to settle in for a long night of football that started with the Oklahoma/Oklahoma State game and ended with Michigan State and Ohio State. There was an additional Auburn fan and an Alabama fan that watched the SEC Championship game. While it was easy making it to 4:00am when the SEC Championship game ended, I struggled to keep my eyes open to watch the Michigan State/Ohio State game. Finally, at 7:15am, a car arrived to take me back to my compound.

When I arrived at home, Michigan State had taken the lead in the Big10 Championship game and the prospect of Auburn going to Pasadena was too much to go to sleep. When the game ended there were numerous Skype calls back to the US and celebratory comments to post of Facebook. Eventually, sleep was too difficult to avoid and I finally hit the sack at 9:30am.

I am a little late in wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving…

thnx

 

This year, I am truly thankful for friends who live in nearby countries and who allow me to join them for Thanksgiving.  I had an amazing time visiting with dear friends in Rwanda. If anyone knows me well, you know that Rwanda is one of my favorite countries to visit and Kigali is probably my favorite city in the world (hands down my favorite city in Africa). I love the rolling green hills that dot just about every inch of the country. The weather is mild and unlike Juba, most of the roads are paved.

the hills

For the weekend, we took a trip up north to the town of Gisenyi. Gisenyi sits on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the base of an active volcano and on the pristine shores of Lake Kivu. We stayed at the Serena Hotel. The Serena Hotel is 15 star hotel compared to my living arrangements in Juba. The bed was probably the most comfortable bed I have slept in since departing the US. It was one of the reasons that I missed the most epic play in college football – make that American football in general.

serena

The night of the Iron Bowl, I was unable to watch it on TV or online. I decided to listen online through the Auburn network. I even paid $2 for a Coca Light to help me stay up. But the bed was too powerful. I drifted in and out of sleep as I listen to the game. Just after 2:00am, after Alabama scored to take the lead, with just four minutes left in the game, I decided this game was over and I should just enjoy this comfortable bed on my last night. I never imagined that Auburn would win the game with one second left on the clock. When I checked my phone the next morning, I had over 30 messages from friends/family congratulating me on Auburn’s win. The highlight was a text that stated Auburn was holding a Leprechaun hostage – insinuating that was the reason for Auburn’s wins against Georgia and now Alabama.  While I am sad that I missed the ending of the game, the good night sleep and amazing breakfast brought me must needed comfort.

On Sunday, we headed back down to Kigali and on Monday, I flew back to Juba. And my amazing weekend came to an abrupt end. The Juba International Airport has a way of dashing whatever hopes and dreams you had for the coming weeks. I am now counting down to the next trip out of Juba. That trip comes in 13 days…

Until then, keep me in your prayers…I can use patience and strength to withstand the hassles of South Sudan.

plsymate

 

My playmate over the weekend – Jimmy.