South Sudan conflict hits home for Winnipeggers

The Rev. Reuben Garang, third from left, with some of his relatives who fled the violence in South Sudan last December and sought refuge at a camp in northern Uganda. Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Reuben Garang, third from left, with some of his relatives who fled the violence in South Sudan last December and sought refuge at a camp in northern Uganda. Photo: Contributed
Published February 24, 2014

A refugee camp in northern Uganda was the last place the Rev. Reuben Garang expected to be reunited with his brothers and sisters. They had been separated for 25 years, following the second Sudanese civil war in the 1980s.

Garang, now an Anglican priest living in Winnipeg and a Canadian, had planned an emotional reunion to take place December 2013 in Jonglei, South Sudan. He hadn’t been there since his teens. He bought little gifts for his relatives and looked forward to saying prayers for his late parents and basking in the independence that South Sudan achieved in July 2011. Instead, he found himself reliving the nightmare he thought was over.

When Garang left Canada on Dec.15, he was unaware that, on that same day, a new and bloody conflict along ethnic lines had erupted between the forces of President Salva Kiir and the allies of former vice-president Riek Machar.

Garang arrived in Uganda on Dec. 17 and was told by his sister-in-law that his cousin was among those confirmed dead; other relatives were making plans to flee. Also, no planes were flying to the capital, Juba, the only way in and out of South Sudan. Garang was in utter shock and disbelief.

In the 1980s, at the height of the civil war, he was separated from his family and became a child soldier. He later became one of 20,000 “Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan,” a term used by aid workers for Nuer and Dinka children, ages 7 to 17, who were orphaned or displaced by the internecine conflict and ended up in refugee camps in Africa. “I lived with the trauma of war, and seeing that happen again brings back memories,” said Garang in an interview with the Anglican Journal.

While searching for his family members at the Alere refugee camp and UNHCR refugee reception centres in the Adjumani district of northern Uganda, he talked to refugees, many of whom fled with nothing except the clothes on their backs. By then, thousands of people had been reported killed and more than 870,000 others displaced, according to the UN. “The situation is tough and overwhelming,” Garang said.

On Dec. 28, Garang was reunited with two of his sisters, two brothers and some nephews and nieces. But other siblings and relatives remain trapped in South Sudan. “I was at least happy that I saw them…But I am emotionally broken,” Garang later wrote in a blog that documented his journey.

Now back in Winnipeg, Garang says he is experiencing sleepless nights thinking about the fate of his relatives. He is not alone. The city has a community of about 3,000 South Sudanese, many of whom came to Canada as refugees.

Rebecca Deng. Photo: Contributed


As stories about the violence were reported on TV and in newspapers, Rebecca Deng said she couldn’t sleep. Seeing images of children, women and the elderly huddled under trees that serve as makeshift shelters made her feel “so upset and desperate.”

“I put myself in their shoes because I was in the same situation as a kid, when I went to Ethiopia as part of the Lost Boys and Girls,” said Deng, who is a member of the Emmanuel Mission, an Anglican congregation of Dinka-speaking people that meets at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church. “It shouldn’t happen to other children again.”

Deng was nine years old when she was separated from her parents during an attack on their village, near the town of Bor. She found herself in Ethiopia, along with thousands of other refugees. When that country was immolated by civil war, they fled again, crossing dangerous rivers by rope, and somehow arriving at Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. Deng met her husband at the camp when she was 17 and bore two children, who died as infants because of an illness. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “I didn’t want to live anymore.”

In 2005, Deng and her husband were resettled as refugees in Canada; they were shocked at how peaceful it was. “I thought that bad things were happening all over the world, ” Deng said, “that violence was normal.” But they had been so broken by the war that their marriage collapsed.

In 2011, when South Sudan became Africa’s newest country, Deng went back to Bor to be reunited with her father. He had been captured in the war and she hadn’t seen him in 23 years. What she saw there was “heartbreaking,” she said. The lives of the people hadn’t changed; they remained mired in poverty. (Deng, who working toward going to university to study human rights, is convinced that educating women is key to South Sudan’s future.)

Rebecca Deng poses with some of her relatives during a visit to Bor, South Sudan, in 2008. Photo: Contributed


Deng had been sending money, earned while working as a security guard, to help her sisters and brothers in South Sudan. But when the latest conflict erupted, she thought, “What about others who have no relatives or any connections [to the outside world]?”

She decided to seek the help of the Rev. Canon Cathy Campbell, the incumbent at St. Matthew’s. With the aid of St. Matthew’s parish, the community launched a fundraising event that has so far raised nearly $5,500-money that will be donated to the Canadian Red Cross and its relief efforts in South Sudan.

Deng said she is grateful to all Canadians, including Anglicans, who have offered financial support and prayers, including the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, who has sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging Canada to help forge peace in South Sudan.

Garang, for his part, has been urging South Sudanese Winnipeggers to set aside ethnic differences, remain united and work for peace in South Sudan. “The most important thing is to call for an end to hostilities as one group and as one voice. It’s a difficult thing to do, but solidarity is important,” he said. “Whether one person has a family member who died or not, we are all affected as community. People are still being killed as we speak and some don’t know where their relatives are. This is a war that concerns all South Sudanese people in diaspora.”

South Sudan has always been a mixed nation, Garang noted, but ethnic groups were able to live side by side peacefully. He blamed the recent conflict on politicians who are “just clinging on or looking for power.” Democracy, he added, has also not taken root in the Africa’s newest country.

This is a message that Garang imparts in local gatherings, but he also underscores the power of prayer, which sustained him when he was a refugee and which eventually led him to the path of priesthood. He had borne a lot of responsibility, from burying the bodies of boys and girls his own age to teaching the Bible to his peers. Garang said he clung to God for help because he had no parent or older sibling to turn to. But he also offered his hand in support to others. “There was no other hope, so it was all about your relationship with God. We began to trust that we could survive through God’s grace…We didn’t have enough food, enough water, and everything was in scarcity. It had to be shared so that we could all live.”

Reuben Garang distributes gifts to his relatives during an emotional reunion at a refugee camp in northern Uganda last December. Photo: Contributed

Editor’s note: A correction has been made to the date that South Sudan became a country.


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