The Magazine

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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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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