On one of our first days after arriving in Juba last fall, former US Envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios, photojournalist Lucian Perkins and myself sat down with Acuil Malith Banggol, a former political officer with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the rebel force in southern Sudan. He explained why southern Sudanese no longer wished to be part of Sudan, about how the Dinka, Nuer and other peoples of the south had been marginalized and persecuted by the authorities in Khartoum for three decades
Almost in passing, Banggol mentioned that his son, Ring Banggol, had actually been a slave for six or seven years.
Intrigued, we later tracked down Ring, now living in the South Sudan capital, and listened to his amazing story: As a young boy, growing up in Wau, Ring was kidnapped by a militia group and taken into captivity in northern Sudan. He was forced to work tending goats, under threat that his Achilles tendon would be cut if he attempted to escape. He received regular beatings from his masters before he managed to get away.
Today, Ring is a tall, strapping young man who loves to play basketball and wants to study economics at university. On Saturday, he will become a citizen of the new country of South Sudan. If all goes well–and peacefully–he will at least have a fighting chance of achieving his dream.
Ring’s story is one of three told in a short video created by Perkins during our visit to assess conditions on the eve of independence. You can watch the video below:
The three of us wanted to learn first-hand about what had happened–and what may happen–in a small part of the world that had experienced suffering on an epic scale over some 30 years of civil war. The estimated 2 million people who died and the 4 million who were displaced before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended Sudan’s civil war defy belief.
With the possible exception of the recent wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it may have been Africa’s bloodiest war in modern times. To put down the rebellion, the northern authorities employed indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilians and used allied militias to terrorize and enslave the population. In the case of the conflict in the Nuba Mountains, scholars believe they committed genocide.
But the numbers don’t truly convey the human cost of such a brutal conflict.
Hearing Ring’s story reminded us that what matters are the experiences of the individuals who have lived in the midst of this turmoil and suffering. Every one of the dozens of people we met during two weeks traveling about the south had a story: a family member or friend who had been killed in a massacre; a long trek to Kenya or Ethiopia to escape the violence; or, in the case of another individual we met, Sunday Achan, a hotel maid in Juba, a near-death experience at the hands of a terror group, the Lord’s Resistance Army.
It seemed to us that this entire country of some 8 million people had been seared by the conflict. Everyone has a story to tell. And while today the people of South Sudan are celebrating their first days as citizens of an independent country, the legacy of war and violence casts a long shadow. Many of those we met seemed careful not to be excessively optimistic about their coming freedom.
“I wish there’s going to be peace,” Ring told us. “That’s just my wish, but if there’s no peace, well, I’ve always lived in the war. This is what I’ve always expected. I was born in it. I lived through it. If there’s no peace…it’s still the same. I don’t know what peace is.”
The odds have always been steep for southerners. South Sudan’s independence was far from a certain outcome during decades of war. Perhaps the world’s newest country can once again defy the odds and establish the peace and development that citizens like Ring deserve.
–Michael Abramowitz, director, Committee on Conscience