RESPONSE: December 2013 Issue

Women Face Challenges of South Sudan

Women Face Challenges of South Sudan
A woman lives in the Yusel Batil refugee camp in South Sudan's Upper Nile State.

Juba: The Politician

Magdalena Bita's husband was murdered two decades ago in an argument over money. The killer was caught and jailed. "He was found guilty in a trial, and the judge asked me if he should be executed," Ms. Bita said. "I said to release him, as I had already forgiven him. I had children, and I knew that someday they might be hurt if I didn't forgive him because someday his child might decide to hurt one of my children. Forgiveness is a grace from God, and the more you forgive the more grace you have. I forgave that man for the sake of my children."

Two years after celebrating its independence, the new nation of South Sudan is struggling with a variety of threats: violence sponsored by the government in Khartoum, internal tensions, corruption and a legacy of tribalism.

And Ms. Bita, searching for grace for her people, is right in the thick of the struggle.

For years she worked on the staff of church programs that cared for street children and empowered women, even though at times that put her at odds with the guerrilla movement that was struggling against Khartoum.

"During the war, when we in the church heard that someone had been caught by security, we would go and work for that person to be released. The soldiers would catch the children going to school in Uganda and take them back to the barracks to be soldiers. We'd go there and quarrel with them, but we'd get the children released," Ms. Bita said. "The security knew all of us in the church, but we weren't afraid. Sometimes they'd come to our meetings, and I'd tell them to leave us alone, because we are all brothers and sisters. We don't want fighting, because it's our husbands and children who die, and we lose everyone. So we women try to protect society by keeping them from losing innocent life, including that of those children taken to be soldiers."

During the decades-long independence struggle against the government in Khartoum, Catholic and other Christian leaders collaborated extensively with the political movement that is now the government in Juba. Today, while church leaders report that relations with government leaders remain positive, their patience with the government's response to corruption and other troubles is wearing thin.

"The government's time is running out to work with the church," the Catholic archbishop of Juba, Paulino Lukudu Loro, told me last year. "Until now, whatever weaknesses there were, we played the game of understanding. It was a new situation, and we understood that we were beginning not from zero but from under the ground. So we tried hard not to say this and that were wrong. We didn't want to use that language. But that was taken as a weakness. Now there's a moment when we have to talk hard, and it may cause a problem. We're not talking about people being against the government or trying to overthrow the government. We want the government and the people to be together."

In 2012 letter from Archbishop Lukudu and the country's Episcopal bishop, the church leaders lauded the government's accomplishments. "We have a functioning government and civil service, a police force, tarmac roads in Juba and an increasing network of all-weather roads outside, an ever growing mobile phone network, commercial flights to most major towns, a relatively free press with FM radio stations covering many areas, and much more. Few could have imagined this during the darkest years of the war. Progress may not have been as fast as some would have hoped, but a new country takes time to develop and a degree of patience is needed," the letter stated.

Perhaps because she lacked that much patience with the male-dominated politics of her country, Ms. Bita decided she'd run for the nation's parliament.

"Many people in the church told me not to do it, that politics is no good. But I prayed, and I listened to my community, which wanted me to run. Ultimately, I did it because it's a way I can help other people," she said.

Ms. Bita ran and won as a member of the party list for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the ruling party. Ironically, she could have run as part of the "Women's List," which exists because the interim constitution demands that at least 25 percent of the seats be held by women.

"The government says women are 'given' 25 percent. But we are not 'given' it. It is our right," Ms. Bita said. "We should have at least 30 or 35 percent, and if we could get 50 percent or higher, that's OK. It's up to us women ourselves. Many women are graduating these days with master's degrees and are very competent in many fields. And we women are the ones who have made men successful because we always vote for the men and elect men. If women would say, 'We have to vote for women,' then things would change. Women made up 65 percent of the people who voted in the [independence] referendum. If we say we will vote for ourselves, we will succeed."

Besides serving in the country's legislature, Ms. Bita continues her activism, collaborating with church efforts at peacebuilding in conflictive parts of the country, including Jonglei State, where a tribal conflict has been inflamed with the injection of arms and other support from Khartoum. She participates in workshops that bring women together to make peace.

"It is simple for women to interact with other women," Ms. Bita said. "Although we speak many languages in South Sudan, we women really speak the same language. We can talk and unite. We include others in our workshops, like Muslim women, because we speak the same language. Women have sympathy. We are the ones who give birth, and from the first moments of motherhood there's a connection to others. So when a woman sees a child of a neighbor being beaten, she'll immediately ask, 'Why are you beating that child?' Even if the child is not hers, she has sympathy."

Ms. Bita believes this attitude gives women a greater commitment to make peace work for the new nation.

"In the fighting with Sudan, women were the most affected," she said. "Now we have attained peace, and women don't want to go back to war because we know what war is. It brings more burdens for women. That's why we work for peace. Peace is something we can enjoy. It's like a luxury. Even if we die, if it's in peace, we'll feel no pain."

Abyei: The Returnee

When Bruna Maloal was a child, Abyei was a peaceful place, and every year her tribe, the Dinka Ngok, welcomed the Misseriya nomads who came to the region with their vast herds of cattle.

"They came with their cows for the water and grass, and we would eat together," the 63-year-old woman said. "They harvested the gum from the trees, and we would buy some of their goods. And when the rains came, they would go home."

But then things changed. With a separatist movement pushing the south of the country toward eventual independence, Abyei-located on the border between Sudan and South Sudan-was caught literally in the middle. The nomads who once came to Abyei in peace were transformed into an armed militia by the northern government in Khartoum.

"Omar changed things," said Ms. Maloal, referring to Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with genocide and crimes against humanity for his government's actions in Darfur. "Maybe he discovered something here he wanted. But the whole problem began with Omar."

In coordination with the Sudanese army, Misseriya militias attacked Abyei in 2008. Ms. Maloal hid in the bush for four days then came back to the smoldering ruins of her house. The nearby church compound had been sacked and everything of value carried away.

The violence in 2008 was but a prelude to 2011, when Khartoum tried to provoke the soon to become independent government in Juba to respond militarily to an attack on Abyei. Such a response would have given the north an excuse to launch a full-scale war that would have derailed the south's independence. Juba didn't take the bait, and the people of Abyei paid a heavy price.

"The Misseriya came on motorcycles, one driving with two on the back with guns, shooting people. I saw them with my own eyes," Ms. Maloal said. "They chased us away, yelling in Arabic. I left everything behind except the clothes on my back. I didn't even have time to get my shoes.

"We hid in the bush near the edge of town to see if the situation got calm. It didn't. They told us to leave. So we ran. For eight days we ran, with the shooting and bombing behind us. It was raining, and at night we huddled under the trees with nothing to cover ourselves. Some stopped in Agok, but they were bombing there so I kept moving farther south. When we arrived at Turalei the United Nations people gave us food and blankets."

More than 100,000 residents of Abyei were displaced by the assault. Most of them sought shelter in Agok. Heavy rains caused the tanks and heavy artillery of the northern forces to get bogged down in mud before they could advance on Agok, preventing what could have been an even greater humanitarian crisis.

Ms. Maloal spent the next year living under a plastic tarp. When the Misseriya pulled back from Abyei in mid-2012, she was one of the first to return. She set to work cleaning up the church compound, which was once again in ruins, and she picked through the rubble of what had been her own mud-walled hut. She regularly gathered others to pray.

"We prayed the rosary as we ran from here. We prayed for the bullets to miss. God ran with us, and were it not for the power of God, we couldn't have come back," Ms. Maloal said. "The church is always with the people. The people here have survived because the church supports them. As a catechist, I gather them, pray with them, and preach the word of God to them."

Ms. Maloal says her five children and their families remain living to the south of Abyei where they have access to food from the United Nations World Food Program. In Abyei town, there is little help from the outside. Ms. Maloal harvests wild greens that she uses to supplement what's left of two bags of sorghum she received in 2012 from U.N. peacekeeping troops in the town.

The U.N. troops, who are from Ethiopia, have also provided water to returned residents in Abyei town. The Misseriya sabotaged the town's wells before leaving, so U.N. tank trucks regularly make the rounds to fill roadside barrels with water. In several outlying villages, the Catholic parish has begun drilling new wells for the returnees.

Because of the lack of international support for a return, only about 20,000 of those displaced in 2011 have returned to their communities, according to the United Nations, although those numbers are inexact. Church leaders say many families have returned for a brief period then gone back to the relative safety of Agok. Before making a decisive commitment to return home, they're waiting to see what the political future holds.

The African Union proposed a referendum for October on Abyei's future. A similar referendum planned for 2011 did not take place, as Khartoum insisted the Misseriya be included in the vote, something the Dinka Ngok and Juba rejected. This year's proposed referendum again provoked rejection from Khartoum, which stepped up pressure on the Dinka Ngok. On May 4, Misseriya militiamen shot and killed the Dinka Ngok's chief, Kuol Deng Kuol, while he was riding in a U.N. convoy on a peacemaking mission.

I interviewed Chief Deng just weeks before he was killed. As we walked through the charred ruins of his office in Abyei, which was looted and burned by Misseriya militia in 2011, he said that while the Misseriya were responsible, he didn't blame them. He was careful not to characterize the situation as a tribal conflict, the shopworn phrase used too easily to describe African tensions, but rather a political conflict manufactured by the ruling elite in Khartoum.

Mr. Deng said his people were tired of waiting, and if Khartoum refused to allow a vote this year, the people of Abyei might just unilaterally decide their political fate and join South Sudan. Should Khartoum respond militarily, he said it won't be a repeat of 2011, when Juba refused to send in troops.

Abyei is often described in press reports as an "oil-rich region," as if the pursuit of Africa's abundant resources explains all the violence. Much of the oil is located near Heglig, which the Permanent Court of Arbitration took out of Abyei in 2009, awarding it to Khartoum, and Chinese companies there today are pumping crude as fast as they can, thus funding Khartoum's military. According to a March report from George Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project, that military is massing tanks and other heavy combat equipment at Heglig, possibly preparing for another assault on Abyei.

Congo border: The Refugee

After five years of living as a refugee in South Sudan, Bernadet Adesa wants to go back to her village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet as long as Joseph Kony, the fanatical leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), is free, she says she'll wait, even though the refugees' welcome is wearing thin.

"I want to go home, but I'm afraid of Kony. As soon as the LRA is gone, I'll go back. It's my country," said Ms. Adesa, 35, who lives in the Makpandu refugee camp, a ramshackle collection of mud huts near the border of South Sudan and the Congo.

"This has been a good place for us, but every day there are more and more problems between us and the South Sudanese. If anything bad happens here, we Congolese get blamed for it," she said.

A Catholic priest who lives in the Makpandu camp says the refugees are caught between being harassed inside South Sudan or returning to the Congo where the LRA, although weakened, still rampages through the forest, robbing, abducting and killing. Although widely condemned by political leaders, Kony is reportedly supported by the government in Khartoum as a way of destabilizing its neighbors.

"The Congolese no longer feel welcome here. They live on land that's not theirs, and their freedom to work and make money has been curtailed," said Father Mario Benedetti, who believes the Congolese work harder and are better businesspeople. "They can make enough money to buy a motorcycle, and the South Sudanese can't, so they get jealous of the refugees."

Authorities closed a market the refugees opened in the middle of their camp, forcing them to cross the road to buy basic supplies in a Sudanese market. Father Benedetti said the police had also prohibited the Congolese from selling bags of charcoal along the road.

"The South Sudanese who live nearby weren't happy because of the competition. So now the refugees can only sell charcoal from their huts, but who's going to stop their car on the road and walk into the camp?" he asked.

Both the refugees and their South Sudanese neighbors had organized citizen militia groups, dubbed "Arrow Boys," to defend themselves against the LRA. Security in the immediate area of the border has improved in the last year, in part because of the arrival of U.S. troops dispatched by President Barack Obama to help area regional armies combat the LRA. Nonetheless, Father Benedetti says it's not enough.

"We don't know what they're doing," he said. "Yet if they could find [Osama] Bin Laden, why can't they find Kony? It's an international shame."

Some of the U.S. troops are based in the nearby town of Nzara, where they're part of a joint operation with a contingent of Ugandan troops tasked with chasing Kony. Sister Giovanna Calabria has met several of them.

"People here were happy when they came, but no one is sure what they're doing now," she said. "I have the impression that their wings are cut. I don't hear that from them, as they keep their mouths closed, but I hear it from others."

Sister Calabria doubts that diplomacy, religious or otherwise, will work.

"There is only one way to stop Kony. I don't mean to kill him but to detain him.... He couldn't survive in any peace agreement because he's not a normal person. And he's forced many other people to not be normal anymore," she said. "Probably I'm not a good Christian, but it's time to stop him."

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 11/30/2013 11:00:00 PM