South Sudan is suffering again, and its pain is being felt by sons and daughters who fled to find peace far from home, including those in and around Seattle. In a nation of immigrants there is always a connection to other parts of the world.
Last week new fighting broke out in South Sudan. I wasn’t surprised by what was happening there. Violence in some parts of the world can come to feel almost normal, which makes it easy to sigh and move on to the next story. Each of us has only so much emotional energy. But meeting people who are personally affected breaks through walls of resignation.
Peter Kuel drives a taxi. He’s a tall, thin young man who stands out because of the parallel, horizontal scars on his forehead that mark him as a member of the Nuer tribe.
On the Sunday fighting broke out, Kuel and other immigrants from South Sudan began calling friends and relatives, and sorting through sparse news reports trying to stay connected.
Kuel called the newspaper with a sense of urgency. It could be another Rwanda if the international community doesn’t intervene, he told me. He wanted Americans to know how bad the situation is, because then, he was sure, we would get involved.
I agreed at least to listen to him.
He brought eight fellow refugees with him last Thursday. They poured out information about the country and the fighting, but more important, they presented themselves, a diverse group of flesh-and-blood people right here feeling pain that was in no way distant or vague.
Yar Dut came to the United States in 2007 and works as a nurse assistant. “I lost my sister-in-law two days ago in Juba, leaving two children behind,” she said. Dut was only 10 years old, when a different war broke out in 1991. Another generation of children shouldn’t have to experience that. “My heart is breaking into pieces, and I have been shedding my tears since it began,” she said, “not because of my family, but because of the nation we have learned to love.”
The Republic of South Sudan became a country only in 2011 after a long fight against the government of Sudan. “We didn’t fight so that we could … fight with each other,” Dut said, but that is what is happening.
News reports put the number of deaths last week in the hundreds and say the fighting is rooted in a split between the president, Salva Kiir, and the vice president he ousted this summer, Riek Machar. Differences between them, and broad disappointment with the pace of development, may evolve into an ethnic battle between Dinka and Nuer tribe members. Machar is Nuer, and Kiir is Dinka Bor.
The refugees I met represented a mix of tribes, mostly either Dinka or Nuer. Nasir Paulino, who is Nuer, said, “My sister today told me that right now in Juba (the capital) it is very dangerous.” He said soldiers were going door to door asking people, “’Do you speak Dinka?’” If you say no, he said, they kill you.
Kuel said two of his cousins hid when trouble started, then last Wednesday they decided to check on their homes. They were caught on the street, and one of them was killed.
The nine argued passionately for a few minutes over which side was to blame, but agreed that whatever disagreements exist should be solved peacefully.
Amelia Abiem is a University of Washington student in global studies and political science. Her father died in a previous war in Sudan, and her family fled when she was 3 years old. She said, “What we need as women is peace. As women, we don’t care who leads.” Her family is a mixture of tribes.
Peter Mayang, Dinka Bor and Machar Thong, a Nuer, went to South Sudan as part of a church mission to help with development and planned another trip next spring, but they said they won’t be able to go if fighting continues.
Thong, who came to the U.S. in 2006 and works as a fisherman, said, “We are here in the United States. We are here because the United States is a peaceful place. If they stop the violence, we can go back and help with the development. If they keep fighting, we have to stay here forever.”
Toward the end of last week, mediators from other African countries were working for a truce. The U.S. doesn’t need to get deeply involved, but our government should do what it can to help the mediators stave off civil war.
What happens over there so often brings new faces here and reminds us that we do have a stake in far-off places. Even when there seems to be no compelling national interest, there is always a powerful human interest.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org