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Birth of a Nation

With American evangelicals on the ground in South Sudan.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By ARMIN ROSEN
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Juba, South Sudan

Photo of a woman carrying a bag marked "U. S. Aid"

It’s easy to tell which countries stuck by South Sudan.

ALL MAGES: NEWSCOM

The Sudanese conflict has entered a dangerous new phase. Between 1983 and 2005, the Arab-led government in Khartoum and its proxies struggled to defeat a militia movement aimed at establishing a new political order for the polyglot country, one that wasn’t based on violent coercion and racial privilege. The current fighting along the disputed border between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan threatens to throw the region back into chaos. Just seven years after a peace agreement successfully ended a war that had killed somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million people (in a country with a present population of 8 million), there are daily reports of bombings and border attacks, troubling reminders of the frailty of the post-conflict status quo. 

The 2005 peace treaty ended the war while allowing the south to vote on independence, and on July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent state, recognized by virtually every other country​—​including Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum. The region’s non-Arab Christians and animists successfully separated themselves from an Islamist regime that imposed a mild form of sharia law, depopulated much of Darfur, sheltered Osama bin Laden, and bought advanced weapons systems from Iran. One of the most devastating conflicts in African and Middle Eastern history had apparently ended.

South Sudan is the Arabic-speaking world’s only non-Muslim majority state. Here Christian evangelicals are openly welcomed​—​in particular, a group of American aid workers who have helped build the country, and lobbied on its behalf, and who now have no intention of abandoning it, even on the brink of war.

When I visited South Sudan in March, three weeks before the outbreak of the latest hostilities, I found a country exhilarated by the successful end to a decades-long struggle. South Sudan is building its first paved highway, and I met officials who spoke excitedly about a future of nationwide infrastructure, large-scale agricultural development, and even regional leadership. The national capital of Juba is dotted with new construction, and legions of NGO employees, foreign businessmen, and workers from nearby Uganda and Ethiopia give the city a decidedly cosmopolitan character. It feels like a place that is eagerly making up for lost time. 

During the war years, Juba was a garrison city controlled by the regime in Khartoum and under constant siege by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. The government’s rule over the city bordered on totalitarian, recalls Justin Lotio, a pastor in Juba who stayed through the violence. “We were living like people in a cage,” he says. “Today, there is freedom.” 

Walking the bustling and newly paved streets, it’s easy to tell which countries stuck by South Sudan during its two-decades-long hell​—​Juba must be the only Arabic-speaking capital where American and Israeli flags hang proudly from taxi drivers’ windshields. 

From the beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush took an active role in shaping the peace process that led to southern independence. Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, was instrumental in negotiating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the 2005 treaty signed by Khartoum and the late SPLM leader John Garang that ended the civil war.

Driving the Bush administration’s Sudan policy was an unusual coalition of African-American and evangelical Christian leaders, groups whose involvement in the Sudan issue went back decades. In the 1980s, American Christians began lobbying on behalf of their persecuted -coreligionists in Sudan, and evangelicals in Congress, including Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Frank Wolf, became forceful advocates. Over the decades, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, has established himself as a significant presence here. Graham, who met three times with Bashir, is president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based evangelical relief organization present in over 100 countries.

In South Sudan, Samaritan’s Purse has a dozen bases and sub-bases, scores of heavy vehicles, two light cargo aircraft, and a small army of staff. They’ve opened hospitals, drilled boreholes, fed refugees, and trained rural South Sudanese in farming and water management. Len Levins, a Juba-based 20-year U.S. Army veteran serving as the organization’s acting country director, summed up the organization’s mission in terms simultaneously pragmatic and theological. “If it’s too hard to do for somebody else, we can’t take that as an excuse” he tells me. “If people are starving, helping them is what we’re called to do.”

Samaritan’s Purse is a relief NGO, but the group is in South Sudan also to help heal Christian communities wounded during decades of war. “Pastors were taken out and killed simply because they were pastors,” says Levins. “They came and took people out of Christian communities and tried to indoctrinate them, and still they held onto Christianity to the point of death. It’s something that gives them hope. It sustains them.” 

Graham’s NGO is cosmopolitan in a sense that the polarized American discourse on the evangelical movement would have a difficult time processing. The organization employs conservative American Protestants, but also liberal Catholics, Ethiopian Orthodox, and people of no particular faith. In the Yida refugee camp, many of the local staff, and the majority of the beneficiaries, are Muslims fleeing Sudan. The group’s outlook is global rather than parochial, and it uses Christianity as a basis for engaging with the wider world​—​traits that run against much American stereotyping of evangelicals.

The organization does traditional relief work in Northern Bahr el-Gazal, a chronically undeveloped state with a population of 720,000 along the northwestern border with Sudan and one of the fiercest battlegrounds during the civil war. Shelly Slemp, the base operations manager in Northern Bahr el-Gazal, grew up in Virginia’s rural southwestern corner, and earned a spot on Princeton’s women’s basketball team. Five years after graduation, she oversees a staff of 180 in a desolate, isolated place that very few Americans have heard of. For her, the work is still spiritually centered, even if there’s nothing overtly religious about drilling boreholes or organizing farming coops. “One of the first distinguishing features is that we’re a Christian NGO that focuses on physical and spiritual assistance,” she says. 

Samaritan’s Purse also engages in activities of a more straightforwardly Christian character. It runs a program that uses the Bible to teach reading, an imperative in a country with a 27 percent literacy rate. “There are three generations that didn’t go to school because of the war, and there isn’t much more schooling here even after the war,” says James Dhol, the local head of the literacy program in the border village of Gok-Machar. “Now, people are able to read the Bible.” Many students are older adults, which Dhol attributes to a post independence change in attitude. “When you are free, you can do what you like, and your freedom will also encourage you.”

The organization’s most visible mark on Northern Bahr el-Gazal is its church rebuilding program. Over 500 churches were destroyed during the war, as part of Khartoum’s deliberate strategy to fracture and demoralize the civilian population. Samaritan’s Purse has helped rebuild 498 of them. Their sloping, tin roofs tower over the flat landscape, marking villages of scattered, single-story thatched huts. Even an hour from the state’s only highway, a church rebuilt with the group’s assistance is a common sight.

In Northern Bahr el-Gazal, a church brings together poor and geographically scattered communities of cattle herders and subsistence farmers. “When there is no church, people are divided according to clan, and there’s lots of fighting,” says James Garang (no relation to John Garang), a church leader in the market town of Akuem. “Church is the only place where people can agree, and act like brothers and sisters.” According to James Wol, a former SPLA guerrilla who runs the church-sponsored school in Akuem, the crowd for Sunday services often outnumbers the population of the town itself.

Sudanese forces destroyed Akuem’s church five times in 15 years; each time, the people of Akuem knew how important it was to rebuild it. “When the enemy came to burn our church, we’d wait for them to go back to town,” says Wol. The Sudanese military would withdraw, and the people of Akuem would begin building their church again. “It never stopped,” Wol says. “Jesus said that whoever follows me will be persecuted. But when you are persecuted, you must still be happy.”

Bahr el-Gazal has seen its share of persecution, with little happiness to temper it. Over 250,000 people died from famine there in the 1990s alone. Since the war ended, more than 350,000 refugees have returned to South Sudan, resettling an area with no large-scale farming or infrastructure, ephemeral water resources, and almost no government services. Fears about the possible collapse of the peace process, along with the Sudanese government’s negligence, kept development stagnant​—​and tensions high​—​during the postwar period. The anxiety hasn’t completely gone yet. 

I met Wol and Garang near the town’s new Samaritan’s Purse-built church, and while they spoke, a skeletal donkey stumbled around the churchyard, its ribs bulging through dry, sagging skin. The harvest has been thin this year, even as the state’s population explodes. The number of returnees is expected to increase, after Khartoum decided to strip up to 500,000 southern refugees of their Sudanese citizenship in early April.

Independence hasn’t necessarily brought a tangible improvement in the state’s situation. The Khartoum regime, the people who, as Wol puts it, “abducted our children, raided our cows, and burned our houses,” only left nine months ago. But with independence, the past already seems distant. “God gave us our nation,” says Garang. “And since this is a nation given by God to us, we forgive [the Arabs]. God is the one who chooses us to be here,” Garang continued. “If he gives us an independent nation, we cannot live again under the Arabs.”

Nonetheless, South Sudan’s future is still tied to that of Sudan. The economy is dependent on the oil industry, which is in turn dependent on a pipeline terminating in Port Sudan, in the north. In January, the Juba government shut down the country’s entire oil sector (the source of 98 percent of government revenue) in response to extortionate transit costs imposed by Khartoum, as well as evidence that the north was diverting southern oil to its refineries without paying for it. “It is better not to have anything at all than to have Khartoum stealing our oil,” Cirino Hiteng Ofuho, a cabinet minister, tells me. “What would you do? You cook food, and before you touch it someone runs away with it. So you’d better shut down your fire, and you will hunger together.”

Ofuho’s evocation of mutual hunger was apt, as I learned when Samaritan’s Purse showed me its operations in Yida, a camp housing over 16,000 refugees who fled the fighting in the Nuba Mountains, in Sudan’s South Kordofan state. The mountain range is a part of Sudan, but its inhabitants are Nuba, non-Arab Muslims who fought alongside the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-N) during the north-south war. Because South Kordofan has a large Arab minority, the state remained in the north as part of the 2005 agreement.

Fighting broke out between the Bashir government and the northern wing of the SPLM last summer, after Khartoum rigged South Kordofan’s gubernatorial election on behalf of a regime apparatchik indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in Sudan’s genocidal Darfur campaign. Munil Tia, a refugee who worked as a journalist with a Nuba newspaper in the state capital of Kadugli, recalls the opening hours of the conflict, when Sudanese tanks leveled buildings associated with the SPLM-N and its supporters. “People stopped cars,” he says. “If they found a Nuba, they were accused of belonging to the SPLM. We saw two people shot before our eyes.”

Khartoum has banned NGOs and human rights monitors from entering South Kordofan, but one researcher estimated that 350,000 Nuba civilians live in the conflict zone, and that 150,000 of them face famine conditions.

Samaritan’s Purse has the largest presence of any NGO in Yida, where they distribute food and provide emergency medical care. Because the SPLM-N operates on the southern side of the poorly defined border, and Khartoum is convinced that Juba is aiding them, the camp has become a flashpoint. In November, Sudan dispatched Antonovs​—​Russian-built cargo aircraft that have become Khartoum’s weapon of choice against South Kordofan’s civilians​—​to bomb Yida, damaging a school and convincing several NGOs, as well as the United Nations, to leave. Samaritan’s Purse stayed.

There are almost no permanent buildings in Yida. Even at the Samaritan’s Purse base, the group’s nerve center is housed in an open-air shelter built out of logs and straw. As he shows me around the camp, base manager Conor Lucas-Roberts guides me through a landscape of flat, dusty expanses interrupted by leafless trees and 15-foot dirt pillars constructed by termites. The area is pockmarked with foxholes. Antonovs occasionally fly over the camp, a blunt reminder from Khartoum that they could pulverize Yida if they wanted to.

Lucas-Roberts seems unfazed by all this. Even in the intense heat he conducts himself more like a seasoned diplomat than a 29-year-old recently discharged from the military. But as a logistics officer in the Marine Corps, he worked in an environment possibly even more oppressive than Yida​—​Iraq. “There was an equal amount of stress psychologically,” Lucas-Roberts says, when asked to compare his time with Samaritan’s Purse with his military service. “In combat, you’re worried about your life and the lives of those around you. Here you worry about the same things, but it’s for other people, for the people you’re serving.”

The former Marine says that 100 new refugees arrive in Yida each day. Because of the north’s blockade on humanitarian aid and observers, the flow of refugees is among the only empirical means of measuring the severity of the conflict. The political consequences of the war are less of a mystery. 

Khartoum accuses South Sudan of aiding the SPLM‑N and of violating the disputed border. The Sudanese regime now faces armed uprisings in three regions​—​Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state​—​as well as an Arab Spring-style protest movement. Bashir likely views belligerence towards his southern neighbor as a means of self-preservation. 

In March, Khartoum bombed oil fields and villages inside South Sudan, and by April, Juba had grown frustrated enough with months of provocation to order its army into Heglig, a disputed oil-producing town claimed by Khartoum. Sudan responded by bombing Bentiu, a state capital deep inside South Sudanese territory. By early May, full-scale war appears to be a real possibility.

So long as the countries consider each other a threat to national security, pressing issues such as oil revenues and the status of southern refugees still living in Sudan will be impossible to resolve. Khartoum and Juba need oil, development, and peace. But as Ofuho suggested, they might both end up going hungry instead.

Ten months into South Sudan’s independence, the hazards of building a Western-leaning country in a region that’s being shaped by conflict, mass migration, and war criminals like Omar al-Bashir are clear. In ten years, South Sudan could be stable and prosperous. It could just as easily become a dysfunctional failed state. Samaritan’s Purse has little control over which course the country will take. The organization can dig wells and rebuild churches, but it cannot solve the oil issue or stop the war in South Kordofan.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based freelance writer. He has written about politics in the Middle East and Africa for publications including the Atlantic’s International channel and Tablet magazine.

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