While reporting for Christianity Today on the church in southern Sudan, I was invited by local Christians on a risky ministry trip to Gangura, a village near the town of Yambio just four miles from Sudan's notorious border with eastern Congo. This is territory of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a small, brutal militia fighting in northern Uganda to overthrow the government. Our guide's job description includes pointing out the evidence of past conflicts.
"This village was looted," he says. And, "That woman was abducted and released a few weeks ago." It gets worse. "Someone was killed here." Or, "Victims are buried here."
A wobbly wooden bridge brings us to Gangura. Grass-patched shelters form a semicircle around an abandoned market. Such villages are deeply embedded in the thick foliage. Villagers pop up from different directions. One of them is the chief. Since it is still early morning, tradition calls for polite inquiries. "How did you and your people sleep last night?" we ask.
He replies that his people did not sleep at all because an LRA raid occurred during the night. Some people (most likely women) who were abducted a few weeks ago have escaped into Gangura, and the LRA is furious.
"If you wait—say, an hour—they will show up," the chief says.
A World Vision security officer with us immediately says, "We have to get out of here."
One frail woman urgently tries to tell us her story. "They attacked my house and took everything."
But there is no time to listen. The risk is too high. It is time to scramble out of Gangura.
Millions have fled, millions have stayed, and millions have died in seemingly endless armed conflict. (Rebel groups and government-supported militias are largely to blame for any new violence.) The jerky and perilously speedy drive out of Gangura brings to mind the sincere question one pastor from Yambio posed to CT:
"We ask—where is this peace?"
Despite this pastor's poignant question, CT did find that Sudan's historic 2005 peace agreement stopped the war. But CT witnessed something else—the mustard seedlike beginnings of a deeper peace that is spiritual in character and stimulating great enthusiasm within the Christian community.
AN IMPERFECT PEACE
Four years ago in the remote city of Juba, southern Sudan's regional capital, residents were jubilant. Twenty-one years of war were over. The North, mostly Arab and Muslim, negotiated a settlement with the South, mostly black with a burgeoning Christian population.
Two million lives had been lost and four million people had been displaced during the war years. The January 2005 peace agreement between the Khartoum regime and Juba's Sudan People's Liberation Movement promised peace and prosperity. Newfound oil wealth would be shared proportionally in the largest country in Africa, ranked as the second "most-failed" nation in the world on the 2008 Failed States Index.
"There was great joy among the people," recalls Micah Laila Dawidi, an Anglican bishop in Central Equatoria, one of 10 states that compose southern Sudan. The eight million people of southern Sudan had good reason to celebrate: Lasting peace has eluded Sudan since its 1956 independence. Coming to power in 1989, President Omar al-Bashir routed his political adversaries, embraced fundamentalist Islam, expanded Sudan's military might, permitted genocidal killing in Darfur since 2003, and negotiated only when circumstances forced his hand. (Al-Bashir may soon be indicted for war crimes.)
Under pressure from the United States and the United Nations in 2002, al-Bashir and southern rebel leader John Garang agreed to a ceasefire. This agreement held for three more years as they finalized the peace agreement, which calls for a vote in 2011 on independence for the South. Garang was sworn in as al-Bashir's first vice president in early July 2005. "This is not my peace—it is the peace of the Sudanese people," Garang said. But the Christian leader, accused of war crimes in the 1980s, was killed weeks later in a suspicious helicopter crash.
"The agreement ended a devastating war. That's the good news," says Richard Williamson, President Bush's special envoy to Sudan. "The bad news is that you ended up with an imperfect peace."
Amid this imperfect political peace, the Sudanese church has been making peace in its own way, carrying on its mission at the grassroots level. In recent months, CT traveled hundreds of miles through southern Sudan, visiting Juba, Yambio, and several remote villages. It was not hard to find passionate Christian leaders who set aside personal safety to build up the church and work for a more unified, just Sudan.
On a hot and dusty runway on the Sudan-Kenya border stands the tall, lean James Lual Atak. Years ago, as a refugee and former child soldier, Atak was one of Sudan's 27,000 Lost Boys separated from his parents during the war years. Today, he is a pastor and the founder of New Lives Ministries in the remote village of Nyamlell, Bahr el-Ghazal state.
Atak raises his hands above his head to shade his eyes from the scorching sun as he watches the transfer of 1,650 pounds of medical supplies. The supplies were flown in from Nairobi and will be taken the rest of the way on another plane to Atak's village. The supplies will stock the shelves of the medical clinic his ministry has recently built. The compound already includes a school, church, and several dorms.
When Atak founded New Lives in May 2002, he was the only staff member caring for and educating 153 children. There were no buildings then, but there were trees. Each day Atak would divide the children into three groups and position each beneath a different tree. He would get one group started by counting numbers, and then run out from the shade of the tree into the hot afternoon sun to another group. With the next group, he would begin reciting the alphabet until they caught on, at which point he would head out to the third tree to teach the children how to sing Bible songs.
After landing with medical supplies at Nyamlell, James proudly shows off their new two-story dormitory. In a landscape of browns and beiges, earth, trees, and huts, the dorm's bright white walls and shiny, corrugated roof gleam like a beacon. The entire village seems to revolve around the New Lives compound. The children of the orphanage, now numbering over 400, flock to Atak as he returns.
Nyamlell's fate might have turned out differently had Atak accepted a golden ticket for refugee resettlement in the United States. Like nearly 3,800 young Sudanese who had survived the war, Atak was offered a one-way seat on a plane bound for the U.S. After much soul-searching prayer, he turned down that invitation; he was done running. Atak later graduated from a Bible college in Kenya and returned to his village. By no small miracle, he discovered that his parents were still alive.
Within weeks, Atak determined to stay in Nyamlell. He received a land grant and began his ministry by preaching under a tree. Eventually Atak was able to gain the trust of many orphans, whom he offered a home on his land. Atak admits he has more than once questioned his decision to stay in Africa. But he resolves that question each time by saying, "We can be happy where we are, whether gunshot or no gunshot, as long as we have Christ."
Local Sudanese fill all the jobs at New Lives. Atak has made indigenous ministry a top priority in order to model for young orphans new ways for local people to house, feed, and educate each other at the village level.
'SAVE AFRICA THROUGH AFRICA'
To the southeast of Nyamlell lies the city of Juba, southern Sudan's most developed population center. But signs of prosperity were hard to find during CT's visit to the capital city. The international airport remains a low-budget, bus stationlike operation, crowded with international aid workers and overzealous local officials. The town center is nearly undetectable.
Large homeless families cram themselves into ravaged structures that were once luxurious homes. Housing is critically short due to the tens of thousands of Southerners returning from exile in Khartoum, a thousand miles to the north. Clean water, food, health care, and electricity are all in scarce supply.
"This is the first time we have had electricity for 24 hours in three months," a development worker remarks. Before our interview is over, the power fails. Guest accommodations are prefabricated bunkers. In one guest room, a welcome kit includes instructions about what to do when shooting breaks out: "Keep calm. Stay low. If possible, dash for the designated secure room." Inside that windowless room (normally the kitchen) is a powerful electronic phone for SOS calls to armed peacekeepers.
CT is in Juba to pay a visit to the only Christian radio station in all of Sudan. The station operates out of two shipping containers, fortified with concrete and covered with a zinc roof. Inside the station sits Cecilia Sierra Salcido, a petite, Mexican-born Comboni sister with outspoken, evangelistic zeal. The Comboni order, named after Daniel Comboni, a missionary to Sudan, sums up its strategy in these words: "Save Africa through Africa." Its mission is to motivate Africa's church to undertake African missions.
"In warfare, when a missile is launched," Sister Cecilia says, "its devastating effects are felt in no time. A very close range attack will hit its target in a matter of seconds.
"This is what I think every time we air our programs. A program, a message, a word strikes and hits the audience right away. But its effects can be positive."
Dressed in snow-white apparel despite Juba's raging dust, Sister Cecilia is director of Bakhita Radio, which began broadcasts on Christmas Eve 2006 with Christmas carols and messages from Catholic and Anglican leaders. The station is named after Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave for most of her life. After decades of hardship, Bakhita joined the Canossian sisters in Italy and helped prepare Western missionaries for Africa.
Bakhita Radio is the first of an envisioned network of seven stations sprinkled across southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Bakhita broadcasts 14 hours per day, primarily in English and Arabic, but also in local dialects. Programs include topics for youth and women, religious instruction for church members and seekers, and coverage of reconciliation and development issues. Bakhita has a potential audience of 500,000 people.
"I feel the responsibility and power that lie in processing and loading the daily programming, in pushing the button and letting it go out there," says Sister Cecilia. "Bakhita Radio has the power to strike and … enhance the process of reconciliation, development, and peacebuilding from the heart of Juba."
As long as Bakhita Radio is on air, she says, "The message, the Word, goes out without delay."
THE CHURCH IS EVERYWHERE
Along Sudan's fluid southern border, violent militias live off the land and launch lethal raids almost at will. By contrast, Juba's population of 250,000 lives in relative comfort, if also in scarcity.
Take Yambio, the state capital of Western Equatoria. Travel by road is torturous and dangerous, so CT signed on for the 90-minute UN flight to Yambio. The propeller engines of the 40-seater sound like that of a rusted-out jalopy. After the bone-jarring takeoff, passengers may catch a glimpse of a downed fighter jet from an earlier conflict.
Minutes away from Juba, all one sees is virgin land. No village. No roads. No infrastructure. Before departure, a World Vision staffer had warned, "There is nothing out there." She was right. Southern Sudan is the size of Texas, but has less then three miles of paved road. A senior relief-agency staffer who asked not to be named told CT that the government of southern Sudan was eager to please its newly liberated followers. "A lot has been done. Expectations were too high. It's been years. But still, you see nothing here."
On arrival in Yambio, local protocol requires a courtesy visit to the tribal chief. The paramount chief of the Azande (who also asked not to be named) looks to be in his early 30s. Relaxed in a short-sleeved shirt and plastic sandals, he sits for an interview under a grass-roof shelter outside local government offices.
Did the 2005 peace agreement bring peace to his territory? "Our peace is still fragile, like a glass or an egg," he says. "People have not tasted the fruit of peace."
Is any revenue from the oil industry reaching the people in Yambio? "We are not sharing the oil money—it is political money." Last May, Sudan's oil wealth (6.6 billion barrels) provoked intense fighting between Sudan's national army and southern militants. Both sides claim ownership of oil-rich Abyei, located on the fault line of the North and South.
How are Northerners treating the leaders of southern Sudan? "They think we are second-class citizens. They want us all to be Muslims."
What does the future hold? "We are praying hard."
For Christians, there is one certain new reality in southern Sudan: The fragile peace has moved Christianity firmly into a post-missionary, post-colonial period. For decades, southern Sudan has been described as "Christian and animist," a reference to historic Christian missionary activity and indigenous spiritualism. Today, the indigenous church, with mostly black Sudanese pastors, is everywhere.
In Yambio, 10 pastors gather to talk to CT in a dim training room in a tall, whitewashed farmhouse. These ministers come from about half a dozen Protestant groups active in the Yambio district, but they speak as one: The 2005 peace agreement was a moment of tangible hope. The end of hostilities was supposed to give churches space to focus on ministering to families, rebuilding churches, and strengthening communities.
The first few years were promising. "A government was formed and there was order," says Nicholas Kumba, pastor of the local Evangelical Lutheran church. Southern Sudanese people who had fled to neighboring countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Central Africa Republic, Kenya, and Ethiopia—began to trickle back. Church attendance surged and pastoral visitations became less risky. (Many believers live in tiny villages surrounding Yambio.)
But it was not to be. The euphoria tapered off and church leaders soon began to see that not much was changing. Health and education services showed limited improvement, if any. Poverty was rife.
"Some things were delivered; others were not," says Kumba.
One thing southern Sudan's government struggles to deliver is security. It is hard to think of any secure place anywhere in the 10 states that make up the region. Threats come from many sources: undisciplined soldiers, tribal and clan rivalries, and wild banditry resulting from years of war.
In Yambio, the biggest security threat is the LRA, whose brutality is beyond cruel. Anglican Bishop Bernard Balmoi of Torit, the capital of neighboring Eastern Equatoria state, reported a bizarre incident in his diocese in which the LRA killed several people and forced their relatives to boil and eat the bodies. These credible accounts have the effect of terrorizing Sudanese in hundreds of villages across more than 800 miles along the southern international border.
It is no wonder the pastor from Yambio asked, "Where is the peace?"
THE WORK AHEAD
Last January, the Episcopal Church of Sudan, the largest and most influential Protestant denomination in the country, hosted a conference in Juba that focused precisely on that pastor's question.
At the conference, the field reports from across the nation were alarming. Muslim-Christian tensions remained very high. For example, a sizable section of the only Christian cemetery in Khartoum had been taken over by Muslims to sell used cars. Other concerns included tribal hostility, bloody conflicts between cattle herders and farmers, and bitter land disputes. Oil exploration was also a big issue. Villagers had lost property, shelter, and land. A World Vision analyst sums up Sudan's challenges in three words: power, wealth, security. The country has to resolve how power and wealth are distributed. Both are directly connected to security.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the 2011 referendum to decide whether southern Sudan should secede from the North. Even for church leaders, this question is highly divisive. For Juba's Archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul, independence for the South is a foregone conclusion; many southern Sudanese have sought that since 1947. But Anglican Bishop Ezekiel Kondo of Khartoum is strongly opposed to secession. Kondo's concern is that if the South separates, the church in the North will vanish over time. Kondo says, "I feel that unity of the country should be the motto of the church. Jesus himself came to unite, not divide."
In their final statement, titled "Let Us Move from Violence to Peace," Sudanese church leaders said, "We affirm that the church has no boundaries. We commit ourselves to the unity of the church of Sudan, whether across one or two countries." This lengthy document, issued last January, includes 53 bullet points for specific actions Sudanese Christians should undertake in modeling reconciliation. The statement addresses tribalism, disarmament, oil exploration, returning refugees, agricultural land use, war-trauma counseling, ethnic reconciliation, and church disunity.
One Africa Inland Church pastor confesses, "We still have a lot of work ahead of us."
As CT discovered, that work is well under way. One hears it in the air, in the words and music coming from Bakhita Radio. One sees it in the ministry of people like Atak.
He says humbly, "I'm just one man whom God uses to bless many more"—like the tiny mustard seed that blossoms into something lush and beautiful.
Isaac Phiri is a journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia.
Jonathan Fitzgerald is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.Photos were taken by Jonathan Fitzgerald and the map of Sudan was created by Kerby Armand.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today also posted an interview with Richard Williamson, the presidential envoy to Sudan. CT also has previous coverage on Sudan.
BBC News and The Washington Post also have coverage sections on the conflict in Sudan. BBC also has a timeline and Q&A section on Darfur.
World Vision's site has the organization's latest news from Darfur.
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