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Southern Sudan: Before it’s a CNN moment

In Sudanese villages along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are homegrown militias that use rather primitive technology–bows and arrows and spears–to fight off attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Yet at the same time, the Arrow Boys take full advantage of modern electronic technology to pass on critical information. Mobile phones–what we call cell phones in North America–allow the Arrow Boys to keep in touch with neighboring villages so that LRA movements can be closely monitored, and no one caught by surprise.

In researching a story I wrote about the local response to LRA terrorism in Southern Sudan’s Western Equatoria State, I interviewed Giovanna Calabria, an Italian Comboni sister in Nzara, a town tucked away in the teak forest about 30 kilometers from Yambio. She’s at least in her sixties, and is the feisty sort of person you’d expect to disparage mobile phones as a distraction of the young. Not so.

“I never again will say the cell phone is useless. People are calling all the time to share information or find out what’s happening. We’ll call the UPDF [Ugandan troops stationed nearby] and ask them what they know. People will call us with reports from the villages nearby, or to warn us to stay inside tonight. This network of cooperation has protected many of us,” she told me over a lunch that she and another Italian sister prepared. It was pasta, of course.

A few days later when I was back in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan which now boasts the country’s only paved streets, I heard a rumor of a new LRA attack. I called Giovanna, and over the scratchy line she verified the information. When I asked her for more details, she told me to call her back in ten minutes. I did so, and she then put on the phone a leader of the local Arrow Boys who gave me a full accounting of a November 19 attack on Basokanbi, some 15 kilometers from Nzara. A unit of the LRA had attacked, burned some houses, stolen voter registration materials, and kidnaped eight children, one of whom (an 8 year old girl) escaped a short time later. The LRA squad was chased by both the Arrow Boys and some members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, but they got away with their captives.

The sister is very supportive of the Arrow Boys (who, despite their name, are mostly grown men). “We have all encouraged and supported them. All of us. We’re not involved in providing guns or bullets, because we don’t have any and we would never do that. But we’ve been encouraging them and telling them not to be afraid. To protect life, that’s what Lord wants. To kill for sake of killing has no meaning. But to protect the life of your people is right. We always have a special love for them. They have been the ones that when something is happening they always tell us. They warn us when to hide or not to go near certain areas,” she told me.

Not everyone in the church is thrilled about the Arrow Boys. While acknowledging their importance, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of the Tombura-Yambio diocese suggested they could represent a challenge to democracy.

“The Arrow Boys are a spontaneous human statement from the community that you can’t just sit there and be killed,” he told me. “The coming of the Arrow Boys is also a challenge for the government. I don’t know whether they see that. It’s good to have a village police, if they’re well organized and under the control of the government. But to whom do the Arrow Boys answer? And then there’s the national army [the SPLA], whose primary duty is to protect their own civilians. I feel sorry for them because they don’t have all the equipment they need to resist the aggression, and they’re not really well provided for.”

Getting the interview with the bishop, by the way, took a few days to set up. He’d been off in Rumbek for a gathering of the bishop’s conference, and was en route overland back to Yambio. His staff hadn’t known exactly when he was going to arrive, and so made only vague promises about when I could interview him. I mentioned this to Sister Giovanna, and she instantly picked up her cell phone and called one of the bishop’s assistants, putting on her commanding, Mother Superior voice: “Tell the bishop there’s a journalist from America here and it’s essential that he see the bishop so that he can go back home and write a story that will convince Obama to take [LRA leader Joseph] Kony back to the U.S. and put him in a prison so he won’t bother us anymore!”

I’m not sure if it was Giovanna’s assistance or not, but early the next day I got an interview with the bishop and wrote an article from it, focusing especially on several challenges for the church in the period after January’s referendum.

In Riimenze, about 30 kilometers the other side of Yambio from Nzara, I went on patrol with some Arrow Boys in order to photograph them in the jungle. But there is no cell phone coverage around Riimenze, it’s too remote. So the Arrow Boys use drums. They beat out for me some of the rhythms they use to pass different messages about the LRA. It’s a skill they’ve honed over the years in frequent tiffs with a nomadic tribe that passes yearly through the area with its cattle. Southern Sudan has more than its share of conflicts about boundaries and animals, and if the nomads and their herds stray from the prescribed routes, the drums sound and the Arrow Boys spring into action.

As the case of the Arrow Boys illustrates, mobile phone technology does have its limits. It’s also evidently not a good medium for communicating with God. “I pray every night that the Lord will take Joseph Kony,” Giovanna told me. “But apparently God doesn’t get cell phone coverage and so hasn’t gotten my call.”


In Hillary Clinton’s surprise appearance at the TEDWomen Conference on December 8, she addressed the use of mobile phones in combating violence against women and nurturing accountability in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While there is indeed a lot of potential in mobile justice and other uses of mobile technology as a development tool, we must be careful to not make the same mistake as the clicktivists and assume that merely providing the technology solves problems like rape and other forms of violence–some of which can be aggravated by mobile phones. Clearly, broader approaches are needed in places like the Congo that wed mobile technology with effective advocacy for more traditional forms of democratic governance, like effective policing and robust accountability.

Secretary Clinton is certainly on the right track about this. Mobile technology (used above by a woman in Zombwe, Malawi) may be the most rapidly adopted technology in history, and it represents an exciting opportunity to “reach the unreached,” as some missionaries have long been wont to say. According to the International Telecommunications Union, mobile subscriptions globally will surpass the 5 billion mark by the end of 2010, two-thirds of which are in what the U.N. defines as low- and middle-income countries. Contrast that with the total number of personal computers in use worldwide; including laptops, that’s only 1 billion. In Latin America and the Caribbean, almost 90 percent of the population has a cell phone, and the percentage will continue to grow. Cell phones have become firmly ensconced as essential goods rather than luxury items, and have become a key element in the global south in everything from health care education and delivery, to access to banking and other financial services, to market reports and analysis for microcredit recipients. Pushing the technology into even newer fields, like combating violence against women–or, in this case, mobilizing to stop the LRA–is a welcome development.


Last week a coalition of 19 agencies working in the region released a report calling for greater action to stop the LRA, which may be planning yet another “Christmas massacre” this year.


I did a sidebar to the LRA story focusing on the experience of one young man who had been captured by the LRA in Uganda, forced to fight for them, and finally escaped. Despite some horrific experiences, he has emerged from his ordeal relatively well, and is now working in a church-sponsored agricultural project close to where the LRA is currently operating. As an LRA deserter, he could be targeted for killing by his former comrades in arms, but he’s frankly more frightened of the family of another boy who was kidnaped from the same refugee camp at the same time, and who was ordered killed at one point by an LRA commander. All the children had to participate in the execution, crushing the boy to death. Fast forward to today, and he’s more afraid of retribution from the dead boy’s family, and can’t go back to his home village.

That’s just one small example of how complicated things are in Southern Sudan today. Besides the overriding conflict with the north and President Omar al-Bashir (who we learn from the Wikileaks cables has been reportedly siphoning off billions of dollars in oil revenues to his personal accounts), the south faces enormous obstacles to post-referendum unity, including tribal tensions, financial accountability in the new government, land use conflicts, and so on. Last year I wrote about tensions between those who had spent the last civil war inside the country versus those who had gone into exile and now come home. It’s easy to flippantly write off the South’s future by projecting squabbling post-referendum chaos, but there are concrete signs that the normal tensions of building a modern state out of the vestiges of a fractured rebel movement can be dealt with positively. In October, President Salva Kiir got all political parties to set aside their feuding until after the referendum, and he promulgated an amnesty that brought several disgruntled military leaders back into the fold. In one fell swoop, President Salva Kiir “undid five years of Khartoum’s planning, because by bringing these people back together he destroyed a major plank of Khartoum’s plans to disrupt the referendum,” John Ashworth, an advisor to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, told me. The strategy of divide and conquer had longed served the north well, but it was undone by an outbreak of shared identity and unity among southerners.

Some ascribe part of the reason for this turn around to the unceasing work of the churches at peacebuilding, both at a local level and all the way to the top. In October there were some high level encounters between church and state, and it’s paying off in better cooperation and a healthier environment for southerners to treat each other with respect, no matter the myriad centrifugal forces that want to spin apart the fragile sense of community.

Natalina Mabo thinks these changes have come from prayer. She’s coordinates justice and peace ministries for the Catholic Diocese of Wau, where the 101 days of prayer for a peaceful referendum in Southern Sudan–a truly international effort–have had church people from different denominations collaborating in new ways to pray and work for peace. Included in the new mix are Muslims, and in Wau the 101-day prayer torch, which spent at least a week at each of the city’s churches, also spent two weeks in Wau’s mosque, and Muslims there as in other cities around Southern Sudan have worked side by side with Christians to pray for peace.

“There is something good going on. It’s not like before. Now you can see southerners united, even the political parties. We’ve changed our mind. There is a sense of unity among southerners now that we never saw before. Because of the 101 day campaign, people all around the world are praying for Sudan. And things are changing as a result,” Mabo told me.


The task of defining the difference between north and south Sudan is often reduced in news articles to something like “the Arab Moslem north and the Christian and animist south.” While I’m certainly sympathetic to the journalist’s unwelcome chore of reducing complex situations into short and readable sentences, the identity politics at work here are fierce, and not easy to squash into sound bites. While it has been the case that the northern government’s approach to the south has included elements of both Arabization and Islamization, it essentially remains a conflict between the center and the periphery, between the economic and political elite in Khartoum and the poor at the edges of the country. Stir in resources, the benefits of which accrue almost entirely to the centralized elite along the Nile, and you begin to have a lens that explains both the long battle with the south (which the British facilitated when they folded the flag and took their tea and crumpets home) as well as the conflict with Darfur and other unhappy Sudanese in the Nuba Mountains, in the east, and elsewhere.

In a multiethnic and pluricultural environment like Sudan, it’s always a tendency to pick one thread in that weave and tug it hard. That’s what fear mongerers like Franklin Graham do. Yet such reductionism is neither accurate nor helpful, and usually makes things worse.

Ashworth says that while religion is indeed an important component in the country’s identity politics, it’s only one element: “This is proved by the fact that southerners who become Muslim are still treated as second class citizens. They’re no longer fourth class. They’ve climbed up a little. But they’re still southerners, and thus not treated equally by northern Arabized Muslims.”

Al-Bashir made this point even starker on Sunday in a speech in the eastern city of Gedaref. Defending the public flogging of a woman by police, an episode caught on a video which quickly went viral, the president warned that if the south votes to split off next month, the north would forget about cultural tolerance. “If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity,” al-Bashir said. “Sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”

This isn’t good news for the millions of southerners and other minorities who live in the north. Al-Bashir has essentially argued for partition, and the results will be bloody. Yet his words only remind southerners of why they are going to vote in favor of secession.


At this writing, it appears the January referendum will go forward, though the separate vote in Abyei is unlikely to take place as required by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. (Read my story on Abyei and another look at the tense north-south border from the perspective of Malakal.)

I spent more than two weeks in Southern Sudan in November and I came away impressed with the emotional and physical determination to make the referendum a reality. It was easily palpable everywhere I went. And people also believed it was going to lead to peace. Not that they trust the government in Khartoum, but they do seem to value the exercise in moral imagination that the referendum has become. It’s both an exercise in political suffrage as well as a creative shout out to the world that they want to live an abundant life, free from oppression and free from hunger. Such hyperbole doesn’t come easy to me; I confess I succumbed to the contagion of enthusiasm I felt everywhere, even among those who were most cynical about the struggles the nascent nation will face post-referendum. Here are youth dancing during an outdoor Mass at Christ the King Catholic parish in Malakal on November 21, during which a lot was said about how the referendum is an opportunity from God to express the freedom granted in Christ.

Back in the rest of the world, I’m disappointed to hear some church leaders, including a few from my own denomination, speak about the region as if war is inevitable. These glass-half-emptiers have essentially bought the “ticking time bomb” of the scenario makers in the U.S. State Department, yet also forsaken their own obligation to work for an alternative outcome. That’s why I’m mightily impressed with some other church leaders who have assumed the challenge of making peace in Southern Sudan as their own, and thus speak a different language. The incredible cooperation among different religious orders and congregations that led to Solidarity with Southern Sudan is one example of this. So is the energy at Catholic Relief Services. In a soul-searching moment of corporate clarity, rather a novelty in such behemoth organizations, the folks at CRS realized that they had screwed up in Rwanda, where they had been on the ground for years but did not see the genocide coming (a sin of omission in which they were not alone). This time around, as penitence in some way for that error of discernment, they are enthusiastically committed to contributing to peace, and they’re funding and supporting a variety of peacebuilding efforts at several levels. If it all falls apart at the end, at least they can say they did what they could.

Here’s Dan Griffin, the point man on Sudan for CRS, in a recent interview with me:

This is huge. If things go badly, it could be worse than Rwanda and Darfur and Somalia combined. It runs the risk of becoming the largest conventional war in Africa’s history. If it goes badly, the conflict will draw in all nine of Sudan’s neighbors. [Then Director of National Intelligence] Dennis Blair told Congress in February that Southern Sudan is where we’re most likely to see another genocide or mass killing. It’s that ominous.

Yet we have an opportunity to do something about it. Unlike the tsunami or the Haiti quake, we see this one coming. If there’s a lesson from Rwanda, it’s that we should be committed to preventing these emergencies and not just responding after the fact. Southern Sudan today gives us the opportunity to engage in real acts of solidarity, not just acts of charity afterwards. . .

Rwanda was evident also, but people didn’t see it. The importance of talking about Southern Sudan now, before it’s a CNN moment and the bodies pile up, is that it is still invisible. I have a difficult time getting people to pay attention to this, even with the dire scenarios that you can paint. People see it as complicated or far away. Why do you want to put so much energy into Sudan knowing it’s not going to go well? Our argument is precisely because it’s not bad yet. We’re raising money to prevent something, rather than respond to it.

When Chris Herlinger and I discussed what we were going to name our book on Darfur (a discussion that took place over consecutive evenings of humus and baba gannoujh at Ali Babas, our restaurant of choice in N’djamena when trapped there by a spurt of rebel activity in eastern Chad), we settled on “Where Mercy Fails” as a statement that no matter the best humanitarian efforts by groups like CRS or Church World Service, the depth of suffering demanded something more from us, something strategic and political and effective beforehand, not just the best of mercy that we can offer after. That’s not an either-or argument, we’ve got to do both. It’s just hard to get people motivated to do the first, or keep them from being frightened away because their institutional agendas shun controversy rather than creatively embrace it. Talking about the reasons for wars may make it harder to raise money to help the victims of the wars. And that leads us down a road where mercy ultimately will fail.

One of the things in our favor in Southern Sudan is that we’re not talking about this as outsiders coming to the rescue of hapless victims of yet another African war, a line of talk that creeps into some humanitarian discourse from people who should know better. The Southern Sudanese church–both Catholic and Protestant–has a long experience of carving out space for life and peace when circumstances made that seem near impossible. And they’ve done so in partnership with church leaders elsewhere in Africa and beyond. So we can get off the white horses, as we have capable and experienced interlocutors on the ground, ready to continue to take the lead, indicating where our solidarity can be most effective.

Again, Dan Griffin:

Across Southern Sudan, historically the church has been the moral authority and in many places the last vestige of civil society over the years of war and developmental neglect. It provided emergency services to people. When the Lost Boys fled Sudan, it was the church that traveled with them and got them out. The church is the only body ever to do reconciliation in a sustainable way on a nationwide scale. The New Sudan Council of Churches negotiated the Addis Ababa agreement, which ended the first phase of the civil war. The people-to-people peace process facilitated by the Sudan Council of Churches provided the opportunity for ethnic groups in the south to come together and approach the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The south could have consumed itself in ethnic conflict were it not for the church bringing people together across ethnic lines and geographic boundaries. It was the church that kept the focus on higher issues, a dialogue based on the declaration of principles that underlie the CPA, that focus on the people of Sudan living in dignity rather than focusing on where to draw lines, that focuses more on freedom than on how to divide the oil revenues. The church has taken a prophetic stand and looks at the transition needed in Sudan beyond the CPA and the referendum. That longer term view is unfortunately something that the international community often seems unwilling to take.



I am just returning from a two-week vacation during which Lyda and I explored first the beaches of Thailand’s Andaman coast and then the jungles of Laos. I also drug my laptop along and kept churning out writing, accompanied by the pleasant sounds of pounding surf or bathing elephants. By next week I’ll have the initial series finished and will post here a link to all the stories.

I did not take a camera with me on vacation. I wanted to relax, and having the laptop was intrusion enough. I was forced to appreciate the region’s beauty and its vibrant cultural variety without thinking about apertures and focal lengths. Several times I kicked myself for this, but it’s a good practice once in a while. I visited some Hmong villages, for example, and rather than capturing images, I asked some children to teach me how to use their spinning tops. They gleefully undertook the challenge, though I confess my best efforts failed to produce what any of them considered a worthy spin.

I did take along a phone with a camera in it, and captured this one image of a notice affixed to a toilet in a hotel on the island of Koh Lanta. I love it. We’ve all appreciated the goofy menu translations into English that make you giggle (and order something else). But this one takes the cake. It stumped me. Whoever can successfully translate the message into an English we can all understand will win public recognition on this blog, which thanks to many of you spreading the word has been steadily rising in traffic over the last couple of months. Glad to know someone reads this jetlagged drivel. Thanks!

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