A Seattle Sudanese refugee is raising money for his tribe in South Sudan. He says the money is going for food and medicine for tribal youth — but those youth are intent on wiping out a rival tribe.

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After answering the door on a recent morning, Nuer Bol and two of his brothers wordlessly retreated into their dark living room, where an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” blared. Their dad soon showed up in pajamas, said hello and disappeared without another word, returning minutes later dressed in a suit.

Gai Bol Thong, 40, has gotten used to talking with reporters.

Unlike his eight children, Thong grew up in an Ethiopian refugee camp after he and his family were forced from their native Sudan amid civil war. He immigrated to the United States with his wife and their two oldest children in 1995, becoming a U.S. citizen a decade later. A sociology student at Edmonds Community College, he lives with his wife and seven of their children in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.

His story, though compelling, is not unique; an estimated 2,100 Sudanese refugees and their families now live in the Puget Sound area.

What sets Thong apart — and has put him at the center of a recent controversy — are his efforts to raise money for the Nuer, his tribe in South Sudan, where Thong says the young men are fighting to defend their people from rival factions. Thong says the money is paying for food, medicine and shelter.

But in South Sudan, things aren’t so simple: The youth he’s financing are armed and believe members of the rival Murle tribe should be wiped out.

In a story earlier this month about tribal warfare in South Sudan, The New York Times named Thong, describing his efforts to raise tens of thousands of dollars for a tribal militia responsible for the deaths of men, women and children from the Murle tribe.

Thong disputes that characterization, claiming he’s doing a service: sending aid to a tribe that’s fighting to protect itself in a country plagued by anarchy.

Independence

For decades in the northeast African nation of Sudan, civil war raged between the mostly Muslim and Arab northern region and the south, where ethnic tribes are predominantly Christian and animist.

In July of last year, the southern region finally gained independence, becoming the Republic of South Sudan.

But even amid that celebration — and during the civil war that preceded it — tribal conflict has continued, and the new government has been unable to get the killing under control. The hardest-hit state is Jonglei, where several tribes are locked in battle.

The tribes are fighting over one thing: cattle. They’re key to survival among many tribes, including two of the country’s largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer — Thong’s tribe — as well as the much smaller Murle.

In recent months, those attacks have flared up anew. In August, the Murle reportedly attacked the Nuer, stealing cattle and killing about 600 people.

In retaliation, 8,000 members of a mostly Nuer and Dinka army killed hundreds of Murle in an attack in the past month, according to the Jan. 12 report in The New York Times.

Already the Murle have struck back, with The Associated Press reporting dozens dead in attacks on Nuer villages.

Facial markings

What Thong refers to as Nuer youth are actually young men, some boys as young as 12, who have received traditional Nuer facial markings signifying manhood. He sees them as fighters doing their best to protect his people from a deadly threat.

Thong has the markings himself, and remembers as a boy helping his father protect their cattle and goats from Murle attacks.

“If you have a mark, you are ready to fight, you are a man,” he explained. “You are ready to do anything.”

To help Thong support the Nuer youth, old friends in South Sudan helped him connect with Bor Doang, who claims to lead the Nuer and Dinka army that recently attacked the Murle.

Thong has also become something of a spokesman for the army, helping write news releases circulating on South Sudanese websites that both announced the recent attack on Murle and claimed victory afterward.

“There is no other way to resolve (the) Murle problem other than wiping them out through the barrel of the gun,” a recent statement announcing the attack on the Murle read.

The Nuer tribe is so important to Thong that he named one of his sons after it. Since November, Thong has been aggressively raising money for young Nuer fighters. Thong also directs others who help with fundraising in Canada and U.S. cities with large Nuer populations, claiming together they have raised $45,000.

Roslyn Kagy, a former staffer at the now-defunct Southern Sudanese Community of Washington, doesn’t support Thong’s actions, but explains that many local Sudanese refugees have family back home involved in the conflict. Sending money to those families could be seen as supporting war, because the communities have never really had a time of peace.

“There’s no way to support any side without supporting a military,” she said. “It’s their way of donating money to a political campaign. It’s just that there, political campaigns kill each other.”

“Private battle”

Thong has harsher critics.

Maury Clark, of Hobart in East King County, has been actively involved in the local Sudanese community for years and has offered advice and help to the South Sudanese government. He just returned home from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he met with South Sudanese officials. He called Thong’s actions “the last thing that country needs.”

The tribal conflicts are centuries old and toxic to South Sudan, he said, undermining a government doing what it can to stop them.

“I don’t care whether you support the Hatfields or the McCoys. They both deserve to be locked up,” Clark, 71, said. “These people are fighting a private battle. If he’s raising money to continue that battle, if I had my way, I’d arrest him.”

The language in Thong’s news releases is disturbing and his involvement seriously problematic, said Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. She went to the area to research similar conflict between the Murle and Nuer in 2009, and says what’s happening now seems like a repeat of what she saw then. That conflict resulted in more than 1,000 Nuer and Murle deaths, she said.

“It’s really depressing to see that this is still going on,” Henry said. “These are mass crimes.”

Disarmament

The real problem is an ineffectual government, Thong said.

When the government can’t protect its citizens, he argues, the tribes have to resort to what he called the “old style” of doing things.

A South Sudanese government official in Washington, D.C., Deng Deng Nhial, said though Jonglei is remote and difficult for the military to reach, the government has the situation under control and will disarm the militias.

But a 2006 disarmament effort turned into what Henry, the Human Rights Watch researcher, called a catastrophe, resulting in more fighting and deaths.

When asked about disarmament, Thong called up a Nuer website listing the names of hundreds of Nuer killed in that campaign. If the government wants to disarm anyone now, it should be the Murle first, he said.

“They don’t like peace,” he said. “There’s something in their minds. They have a problem.”

One local Dinka refugee, an engineer who’s also active in the South Sudanese community and whose uncle and 5-year-old niece were killed in the last few years by tribal fighting, condemned Thong’s fundraising and questioned why the country can’t reconcile its differences.

“The bottom line is, I don’t support any tribe going to another tribe and killing people. That’s a really inhumane thing to do,” he said, asking that his name not be used out of fear for his family’s safety. “We did not see this coming. We were longing for peace, and it is here now. Why ruin it with tribal conflict?”

Lark Turner: 206-464-2761 or lturner@seattletimes.com.