Shawn Small explores the wars, the devastation, and the hope for reconciliation in one of the world’s youngest countries.
The first time I visited South Sudan it was a different country. Our small team landed in Yei during a sliver of peacetime. We were headed to South Sudan with Water is Basic to film a short documentary on the need for water in the region. At the time, only 10% of the 11 million people living there had access to clean water. Without clean water, sickness was rampant. Over 80% of the patients in medical facilities were there due to waterborne illnesses. Millions of women spent over eight hours a day collecting and boiling water just to keep their families alive. As I prepared for the film shoot, two mammoth questions filled my mind: How did the nation of Sudan disintegrate into one of the world’s worst political disasters of the last century, and how did Irving Bible Church find its way into the middle of that disaster?
Since the 7th century, Sudan had been a battle ground between Christianity and Islam. For 1,000 years each side struggled for military power. In 1821, the Ottoman Empire took control over Sudan and a strict Islamic state was set in place. The instability of the government and the persistent threat from surrounding countries put Sudan in constant jeopardy. Eventually, European powers steadied their eyes on Sudan because whoever controlled it controlled the headwaters of the Nile. Britain supported the Egyptian government to politically stabilize and control Sudan. For the next 57 years, Sudan would remain, in essence, a Crown Colony. During this period, Britain ran Sudan as two separate territories. The wealth, political, and military power remained in the North under Islamic rule, and the south, now populated heavily by the Christian and non-Muslim population, took whatever was left.
In 1956, Sudan broke away from the British backed Egyptian government and became the Republic of Sudan. Although the country achieved independence without bloodshed, it inherited deep-seeded problems that rumbled under the surface of the new nation. On November 17, 1958, the day the Sudanese parliament was to officially convene, a military coup sparked the nation into civil war. For decades, the south fought for independence until 1972, when a peace agreement was drafted that promoted amity for a decade. But by 1983, the country erupted into a second civil war that continued for another twenty years. By the time a fragile peace agreement was signed in 2006, Sudan had the longest running war in modern history. There was not a living person in the south who had not experienced the devastating losses of war.
Water wells in South Sudan
By the time I landed in 2010, the war had wreaked havoc on South Sudan’s infrastructure. At that time there were only 10-miles of paved roads in a place that was roughly the size of Texas. The south of Sudan, abundantly green with the potential to feed all of Africa, lacked modern farming methods. Coupled with the constant instability of war, most of the tillable land remained untouched. Worst of all, 90% of the population had no clean water or proper sanitation. South Sudan was in desperate need of mercy and aid.
While the war had created devastation, the fire of conflict had also fashioned a resilient, creative, faith-filled, and joyful church. The character of the church was best reflected in Bishop Elias Taban. In 1983, when the second war began, Bishop Taban, along with thousands of others, fled for his life as the Islamic government forces tried to take back the south from cessationists fighting for a free South Sudan. For seven years they survived off the meager offerings of the forest, believing God would deliver them. Eventually they emerged from the forest and settled along a river bank in Yei. In time, they built the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), an oasis of peace in the midst of the chaos.
Bishop Taban has worked tirelessly to meet the spiritual and practical needs to the people. EPC built schools, medical clinics, and churches; anything that brought life to the people in the midst of war. They worked with IBC partner ALARM (African Leader and Reconciliation Ministry) and Bishop Taban was their country director. With not much more than a dream and a satellite phone, Bishop Taban began to think through what partnerships with Christians outside of the country might look like in helping to bring healing within the deeply divided nation.
Around 2002, IBC learned about the work of ALARM in war torn Sudan. Through a significant act of faith and sacrifice, a small team from IBC was sent to encourage pastors in 2003. During this trip, an Antonov aircraft began bombing Yei. Shelters, which were not much more than fortified holes, were dug throughout the compound. The IBC team was rushed into one of these holes while the men and women of EPC jumped on top of them offering protection with their own bodies. This trip solidified a long-term relationship that continues to this day.
In 2004, IBC funded an ALARM event where pastors from the north and south of Sudan, who had not seen each other in 30 years, came together to seek forgiveness and begin the process of reconciliation and healing. Out of that gathering, the Sudanese Evangelical Alliance (SEA) was born. During this time, many teams continued to visit from IBC. A group of women including Alice McQuitty visited to serve the women who had experienced the steady beat of funeral drums their whole lives.
In March of 2006, a historic gathering occurred that changed everything. The North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended civil war. A ceasefire put into effect and a power-sharing government was born with an agreement for a Sudanese referendum on independence in six years’ time. This created a window of opportunity for the Sudanese unlike any that had experienced within their lifetime. A partnership between IBC, ALARM and the SEA brought another gathering of pastors to Yei. Steve Roese, IBC’s Executive Pastor at the time, gathered with them to talk about the greatest needs facing the south.
The assembly was energetic with ideas. There were several areas that were considered: trauma healing, farming cooperatives, sanitation, church planting, healthcare, and education. Toward the end of the meeting, an elderly man raised his hand hushing the group. He spoke softly but with grave authority: “Without clean water none of this matters. Without clean water we will continue to die, continue to starve, continue to be sick. Clean water is where we must start.” The room was stunned with revelation. Clean water was the first step. Steve said of the moment, “It’s the first and only time I’ve seen a room full of religious leaders be 100% in agreement.”
Water is Basic became the initiative started by IBC to answer that need. IBCers raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy rigs and equipment that were needed to begin the enterprise. Instead of an outside NGO coming in and drilling a bore hole for $30,000, WIB found a way to do it for a fraction of the cost and with Sudanese leadership, giving it credible sustainability. The Sudanese are in charge of drilling, working with community coalitions, communicating with villages and performing ongoing maintenance of the boreholes. The partnership of IBC and the church in South Sudan created something extraordinary in the world of church missions. This is what inspired me to create the film Ru: Water is Life.
On January 15, 2012, the one-year anniversary of South Sudan becoming an independent nation, we premiered Ru: Water is Life at IBC. Over the next two years, the film screened at 15 film festival across the U.S., raising over $2-million for WIB. In May 2012, WIB became an independent non-profit. They have continued their work of bringing water to the South Sudanese people. WIB has now provided water for over 1,250,000 people through their simple and sustainable solutions.
As teams from IBC continued to travel to South Sudan in the following years, Bishop Taban identified another significant need. In a country with an illiteracy rate of 90%, information travels best through verbal communication. Bishop Taban knew that to provide education and information to the population, radio was a necessary and effective conduit for a message of reconciliation and peace through Christ. Long-time IBCer Mike Gwartney was asked to research what it would take to bring radio to South Sudan. Thirteen years of television work around the world made Mike uniquely capable of the task. Within a couple of months, he had discovered a way to set up radio stations small enough to fit in a large suitcase for $15,000. Mike and his wife, Cheryl, were so excited about the possibilities that they created a non-profit organization, Radio South Sudan. Over the next year, Mike raised funds, made two visits to South Sudan, created a training program for Sudanese staff, and refined the process of building the radio stations.
In December of 2013, civil war broke out again as the President of Sudan accused his ex-Vice President of plotting to overthrow him. Traveling to South Sudan became increasingly dangerous as chaos erupted. Yet Mike was determined to fulfill what he knew was his call. On February 22, 2014, Yei’s first Sudanese run station, EPC Radio, broadcast for the first time. Over the next two years, Mike started stations in Kajo Keji and Rumbeck. Today, EPC Radio is the only station operational in Yei. Mike continues to work toward implementing enough stations to reach the entire country.
Last year, in 2016, the rebel forces reached Yei. The fighting and bloodshed have been ferocious. Tribal genocide between Dinka and Nuer is the new reality. With the constant threat of violence, farmers have stopped planting and harvesting and starvation has set in for many in South Sudan. In the middle of all the fighting, EPC remains as an oasis of hope. The church in South Sudan is the only thing holding people together. Last September, IBC, WIB, and other organizations sent three loads of food into Yei from Uganda. One of the EPC pastors who drove with the convoy had more than 100 bullet holes in his car from rebel attacks on the road. He was hit by three bullets but his life was saved at the IBC funded clinic back in Yei. By the end of December 2016, IBC will have sent another load of food.
Our brothers and sisters in South Sudan remain in desperate need of our help. Even with the firestorm of war encircling them, Bishop Taban and EPC continue to stand for peace and reconciliation. IBC has remained a part of this process through the medical clinic that saves lives daily, the radio station that brings hope, food shipments that help stave off starvation, and water wells that continue to be drilled and fixed even under the threat of violence. What we do today and what we continue to do tomorrow will be the difference between life and death for thousands. May God have mercy upon our family in South Sudan and may the IBC community remain committed to these endeavors until the day of peace arrives.