It was the week before Easter two years ago that I was in Southern Sudan. I went there again and just returned yesterday – the week before Easter.
Southern Sudan is the Christian part of Sudan, the other two areas being Northern Sudan (Arab Muslim) and Western Sudan known as Darfur (African Muslim). Southern Sudan and Northern Sudan have operated under a Comprehensive Peace Agreement since 1995. This stipulates that the North does not raid villages, rape women and take slaves. On April 9, 10 and 11, there will be a country-wide vote to elect the president of Sudan, as well as the president of Southern Sudan and governors and local representatives. The vote was postponed from last year, and though rumors say it will be postponed again, it will most likely take place as scheduled.
If President al-Bashir wins, he will probably avoid a trip to The Hague to stand trial for human-rights violations. It will be a “moving forward” as even the Christian president of Southern Sudan likes to say. It will show that the country can have a peaceful vote, although many say the vote will be rigged, despite the presence of many international observers and the fact that ballots have been printed outside of Sudan to make sure that duplicate ballots cannot be used in the election.
What can’t be rigged, however, is the long-term trauma suffered in the aftermath of the war and the need for continued international response to the people of Southern Sudan. Systematic gang rapes, followed by taking women and men into slavery (called “detainees” by the Northern Sudan government), has left its legacy in Sudan. Many are still enslaved in the North but are unable to read or write, and are threatened with death if they try to leave. This is five years after peace has been declared.
One organization, Christian Solidarity International, has been there during the war and after with their mission to liberate former slaves and return them to their homes in the South. Arab masters are persuaded by border Arab-Christian peace committees to return these Southern Sudan Christians in exchange for cow vaccine costing about $35 per slave. A small organization, CSI has liberated and provided basic needs to returnees (liberated slaves) for tens of thousands of people. Unfortunately, by some estimates, almost 30,000 Southern Sudanese still live in the North in slavery despite the voting and the end of the war. Working on a shoestring, with only a handful of staff, CSI has been able to do what would have taken many organizations 100 people. It is because of the dedication of two men, John Eibner and Gunnar Wiebalck, and their God-given mission that they have been able to continue this amazing work. Without a deep faith, working in Southern Sudan for so many years would be impossible.
It is one thing to hear about the horrible forced rapes that are happening in Congo and another to sit with women and men in Sudan whose lives have been ruined forever by acts of rape, murder, slavery and war. My first Palm Sunday visit two years ago was marked by sheer shock at the way people lived and what they experienced. Returning last November, CSI and I instituted a program to teach some basic Post Traumatic Stress reduction skills. Working initially with women, CSI’s program is supervised by a local London-trained physician, Dr. Luka, who runs a medical clinic supported by CSI.
What has unfolded is that these women are feeling safe enough to share not only their stories, but to begin to share how what happened to them impacted their lives and their ability to function. Only by beginning to feel a tiny bit better have they been able to share how much psychological and spiritual pain they have had to live with. These traumas result from being called horrible names when they were slaves to seeing their villages burned and family members killed in front of them. We learned of women who could not get a night’s sleep for years on end, who run out of their huts screaming during a bad nightmare, or who have disturbing flashbacks during the day while doing simple tasks such as pumping water.
In the short term, CSI helps liberate people and provide them with basic necessities such as tarps, blankets and seeds to plant. However, there are also the long-term spiritual and psychological needs that have to be addressed, and knowing that someone can sleep, smile and become a functioning member of a community is also part of recovery from slavery and war.
Few organizations are there for the long haul, and CSI understands that basic needs include survival, spiritual and overall physical and mental health. It is a tough agenda to carry out, but at least one organization is committed to making it happen.
That is the message of the Easter season.