|A South Sudanese goga (grandmother) smokes her pipe
If you had to pack one suitcase that you could carry and run with, what would you take?
Let's say you could never again return to your home...your nest where you kept everything. Clothes, toothbrush, pictures, medicines... Think hard, then ask yourself this question: what would I pack?
In three weeks the suitcase would be filled with clothes that needed washing, books that have been unread, pictures that reminded you of how it used to be. All the time, your existence would be in this one suitcase, and each night you and your family would have to find somewhere safe to wash, bathe, sleep and have the closest thing to a normal life possible. All the while, you and someone else would have to take turns sleeping, as the other kept a watchful eye on the children and the old.
In the Sudan, these evacuation packs are kept near peoples' beds. After a period of intense "civil war" (is that an oxymoron if you've ever heard one?) that lasted for almost fifty years, many Southern Sudanese are ready to flee at a moment's notice.
Two years ago we drove in caravan to the country of Sudan with three other vehicles. The trip was part of a promise to see Africa, and we did. It also held a daunting task: to share the hope of Christ with a people that had forgotten how to hope. We started from Johannesburg and traversed seven countries to make our way into middle Sudan, where a base for local Christian Pastors was being built. Our leader, Hennie Keyter, was the most fearless man we had ever met, and for this reason, we trusted and followed him into the trip. He had done this a few times before, and it was his most challenging of all the trips he led.
We had been briefed about the Sudan's history and had read about the war (one of the longest civil wars in World History). As with most history, the story changes depending on who you hear it from.
Some see the conflict arising from racial or cultural prejudice (Arabs vs. Africans). Others see it distinctly as a Spiritual matter (Muslims vs. Christians), which in my opinion is closer to the truth. If you trace the roots, the effect of colonization in the South(English) and its failure to protect the interests of those left behind from the controlling North(Arab) can be cited as the precursor to years of conflict.
In its entirety, the war (beginning in1955) killed a documented 2 million people. Others still have died as a result: infection, famine, disease and depression ("She died of a broken heart" is spoken a lot there).
It is estimated by the U.S. Committee for Refugees that 4 million people in southern Sudan have been displaced at least once (and often repeatedly) during the war. The civilian death toll is one of the highest of any war since World War II. In the war, tactics from land mines to food and water poisoning were not unusual, so soldiers were not the only ones wiped out by weapons of destruction. It appeared to be all-out genocide, with the wealthy North trying to wipe out the resisting South.
The result of this kind of war on a people that have endured it for 50 years (the “conflict” officially ended on paper in 2005, with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA) is that they become untrusting of life. Scared. Permanently scarred... and in all of our travels we had never before met a people as hardened as a whole as the Southern Sudanese.
One of the Sudanese pastors told us a story of how as a boy, and a soldier, he was part of a battalion left to guard a trench and wait for the enemy. The boys, many under the age of 12, were equipped with a cache of guns, but very little food and just a rationed amount of water. In the Sudanese heat the boys started to faint and dehydrate. Between the three left conscious, they decided to go look for water (abandoning their post meant death) out of sheer desperation. Before they could disperse, they heard a lone elephant advancing toward them. An idea came into their heads: let’s shoot the elephant for food and water!! The story concluded with the pastor telling me how he offered to accept blame from his commanding officers for shooting the animal, which he did. He quickly took his bayonet and cut into the animal, removed the bladder and drank from its contents. He passed around the bladder to the rest of the conscious, dripped in the mouths of the unconscious, then began to fillet raw bits of meat. It revived the boys for the days ahead. I sat, speechless. Then he smiled. "It was the best water I ever had," he said.
Another mother told us of the time she woke up alone. Her far-away stare said it all: she didn't know where her family had gone to or who had taken them. She didn't say much after that.
Water from a bore hole that our team had dug a year before was constantly being pumped to fuel the work of building an ablutions block for the center. Constant work of digging trenches and hauling bricks took the greatest portion of the day. A team from KZN flew out especially to erect the buildings (brick by brick)that would stay behind us. Mario and Roy swunng pick-axes and shovels to dig the pipelines from the block to the water. All under a sweltering sun that left everyone tired and drained...and sunburnt.
Everyday the ladies were given a third of a bucket of water to bathe in; the men were given a half of a bucket.
Every night we went to bed with no wind and plenty of mosquitoes....and slept fully clothed with our "evacuation packs" next to us. It was a "stay-alert" trip, where all the members had a job to do.
I am reminded today of the life-changing trip because of this morning's newspaper headlines:
4 Million Southern Sudanese VOTE.
Today begins a "referendum", or a special vote where the Southern Sudanese will line up at polls and cast their one vote to decide whether their region will remain united with the north or secede. The referendum was a major item in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Even on facebook, I saw my friend Debbie (our team's doctor) ask for prayer for peace for the vote. The last time there was a vote in Sudan, all-out riots took place at the polls, and the elected vice-president was mysteriously killed in a helicopter accident the same day. 14 other party officials were murdered.
So far, today has been very good at the polls. I pray it will stay that way. In easing a generation out of the hyper-vigilance of a people that have survived a half-century war, it is imperative that things remain peaceful. I don't believe in peace at all costs, but I do champion the free vote and the power of democracy.
I see hope being brought by the world's eyes watching.
In its hope, I see God.