Giving Back to Sudan, from San Diego – An Interview with Wai John Wai

We learned how to jump into bunkers by about age five.  We were taught to distinguish the sound of a normal airplane coming to land and the sound of the bombers.
– Wai John Wai

April 2014 Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future
A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children

Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public. On Thursday, April 17, the film series will include an event about the Sudan genocide.

Below is an interview with Wai John Wai, a first generation survivor from South Sudan.

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An Interview with Wai John Wai

Born:  Bor, South Sudan (Jonglei State)
Age:  29
Occupation:   Elementary School Teacher’s Aide,  Director and Founding Member, Sudanese-American Youth Center (San Diego, CA).  Graduate of Concordia University-BA in History
Major:  Acquiring Masters degree in Health Informatics

Q:  What year did you come to the U.S. and how?

A:  1995.  My older brother Simon came here first by himself a year before.  Later I came with my aunt and cousins.

Q:  Do you have any other relatives still in South Sudan?

A:  Yes, my mother is still there, my sisters and about 12 nieces and nephews.  My father died of natural causes way before I was born.

Q:  Are any other siblings besides your brother in the U.S.?

A:  I have five siblings.  Just Simon and I are in the U.S.  I am the youngest.

Q:  What kind of memories do you have of your childhood in South Sudan (both good and bad)?

A:  We left around 1990.  I was very young. I remember the journey we took.  I can’t remember exactly how long it was, but it was a looong journey… many months.  We left by cars and were told we couldn’t drive with lights at night because we could easily be spotted.  We had to zigzag around the rebel held towns and government held towns all the way to the Kenyan border.  We went to meet up with my brother there.  At first we were just in the border area for a number of years, not in a camp (refugee).  Then later we went to a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.  We didn’t stay long after that.  I moved to Nairobi with my aunt and cousins for maybe a year then came to the U.S.

Q:  How did your brother manage to get everywhere first, by himself?

A:  He was working with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I believe it was World Vision; they were delivering aid to the refugees.

Q:  Do you have any special happy memories that stand out in your head?

A:  Hmmm I’m trying to think.  My friends and I used to love swimming in the Nile, during the rainy season.  We used to just play in the water a lot.  And eating mangos.. I used to love eating mangos in South Sudan.

Q:  Why did you end up coming the U.S. to join your brother and not your other siblings or mother?

A:  We ended up being separated in a border town. Some people went toward Kenya, some went toward Uganda.  Also my mother just didn’t want to come here.  She actually declined three times.  She didn’t want to come start all over since she doesn’t speak English.

Q:  What was the political climate like in South Sudan when you left?

A:  That was when the civil war really intensified, during that time.  The current Sudan president (Omar al-Bashir) had just come into power.  He came with a new ideology to win the war (Second Sudanese Civil War), and that was to encourage the mujahideen (Muslim guerilla fighters) to fight, so the war was intensifying.  A lot of people were displaced during that time.

Q:  Did you leave before soldiers in your area were attacking people in their own homes?

A:  Yes we left early on, maybe a couple of years before.  But the town that we lived in by the border was bombed almost every day.  It was called Kapoeta.  We were living there, and the capital city of the South, which is called Juba now, was the only stronghold left under government control.  They would protect it with the air force and all their  arsenals.  So sometimes they would send the air force to go bomb all the cities in the south from Juba.  Kapoeta was one of the cities that was getting bombed almost every day.  We learned how to jump into bunkers by about age five.  We were taught to distinguish the sound of a normal airplane coming to land and the sound of the bombers.  The high and low altitudes have distinct sounds.  We used to say “That’s a higher altitude.  That’s a bomber.  Let’s go to the bunkers.”

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Second Generation Survivor, First Generation Activist – An Interview with Martina Knee

My first thought when I learned about the genocide was that if I could help just one child not experience what I went through as a second generation survivor, then it would be worth it.
– Martina Knee

April 2014 Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future

A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children

Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public.

Below is an interview with Martina Knee, a second generation Holocaust survivor who will be a featured speaker at the Sudan genocide event.

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An Interview With Martina Knee

Birth place: Vienna, Austria
Occupation:  Corporate Attorney-Retired,
Full Time volunteer for Darfur Coalition (San Francisco Bay Area)

Q:  When did you come to the U.S.?

A:  When I was two years old.  We lived in the suburbs of Washington D.C. until I was twelve.  We then moved to the Chicago area, and I came to San Francisco to finish college.

Q:  Were both your mother and father from Austria?  What do you know of their background?

A:  Yes, but I know very little of my father’s side of the family.  He didn’t know his father, and he was an only child, very distant to his mother. He was raised Catholic but a very devout Atheist as an adult and died when I was ten years old.

My mother’s father (my grandfather) was a soldier in World War I and spent time in a prison camp in Siberia.  I don’t know anything else about it but mention it as it is the earliest war-related trauma in my family of which I am aware.  My mother described her father as a cold, selfish person who took care of his children, but today I think we would call him emotionally distant.

My mother’s mother was Jewish, and her father was Catholic.  Her parents married in 1920, when Jews and Catholics in Austria just did not marry.  They converted to the Lutheran religion so they could marry, but they did not observe and did not raise their children to observe.  Austria was then, and is now, about 97% Catholic and has a long history of anti-Semitism. In the Jewish religion, Judaism passes through the mother.  So, my mother was Jewish and was identified as a “half-Jew” by the Nazis. There is no such thing–one is either Jewish or not.

Q:  Did your mother/family ever talk about what life was like before the Second World War (WWII)?

A:  In a very idealized way.  My mother absolutely loved opera from when she was little.  She would talk about going to the opera as a child and being able to present flowers to the lead opera singer.  But she never really talked about reality much.

Q:  Did she have any siblings?

A:  Yes,  my mother was the oldest.  She had a younger sister who was very different from her, and a younger brother who was drafted into the Nazi army toward the end of WWII.  As the Nazis became more desperate, they started drafting teenagers and “half-Jews” such as her brother (my uncle).  He was killed at age 17 on a train that was bombed by the Americans.

Q:  What did your mother’s parents do for a living?

A:  Both of her parents were doctors.  It was very unusual then for her mother (a woman) to be a doctor.  Both of my parents were doctors as well, and my mother’s sister is a doctor.  Status and education were incredibly important to my parents, particularly my mother.

Q:  Did your family ever try to emigrate before the start of, or during WWII?

A:  I don’t know the answer to that.  After Germany annexed Austria and persecution of the Jews accelerated, my mother’s mother, her maternal grandparents and a maternal uncle committed suicideAnother maternal uncle disappeared; no one knew what happened to him. My mother was 19 when her mother committed suicide. I have a feeling they committed suicide to avoid being taken to camps.  My grandmother was, so to speak, the “Jewish link”.  She thought her children would be better off if she were dead because then there would be no link.  They were all in various places in Austria at the time (not in the same house), and I don’t know the details.

My mother never sat down and told me about the war as a story.  She would just mention these individual vignettes or feelings, but it was never continuous.  She never said that I shouldn’t ask questions, but somehow I knew not to ask questions.   It wasn’t until after she died that I read a zillions books on turn of the century Vienna and the time leading up to the war.  And then I had so many questions, and no one to ask…

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Political Passivity and Humanitarian Decay

Refugees wait for food supplies on border of Chad and Sudan.

Refugees wait for food and shelter in South Darfur

A few years ago, while reading a random review of a television series in the LA Times, I came across a statement that will resonate with me forever: “Tragedy lurks in the corner of every decision… tragedy doesn’t always just occur, sometimes it accumulates.”  With respect to the escalating violence and eroding conditions in Darfur, and the border regions of Blue Nile, Abyei, and Nuba mountains, the international community is responsible for the tragedy that lurks behind their collective indecision and inaction.   In the wake of Mohamed Suleiman’s recent letter to President Obama, any news of the continually deteriorating conditions for the people in these targeted areas is especially poignant.  For many of the victims that manage to escape the aerial bombings, burning of villages, and gunfire, life only gets worse in the IDP camps or other areas in which they seek refuge.

A Few Numbers..

There are approximately two million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Darfur.  Of these, 1.4 million live in refugee camps, and over three million need some type of humanitarian assistance.  The UN estimates that 300,000 people have fled Darfur in 2013 alone.  This is over twice the number of  IDPs than in the past two years.   Over a million people have been displaced or otherwise traumatized (having homes or means of survival destroyed, women being raped..)  in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile (border areas that became targets due to their supposed alliances with the Southern Provinces and the SPLM). Read more of this post

Trying to Find Effective Solutions and Compassionate Responses to the Deteriorating Situation with Sudan and South Sudan

A woman walks towards a cave shelter in Bram village in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan April 28, 2012. Fleeing aerial bombardment by the Sudanese air force thousands of people have abandoned their homes and made make-shift shelters between the rocks and boulders. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)

A woman walks towards a cave shelter in Bram village in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan April 28, 2012. Fleeing aerial bombardment by the Sudanese air force thousands of people have abandoned their homes and made make-shift shelters between the rocks and boulders. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)

“It is high time the international community realise that Sudan is the real problem and it is time to put strong pressure although the government is obsessed with sanctions. There is actually a need to put powerful and effective sanctions. The African Union should take [the] lead”, said Luka Biong, a senior South Sudanese official.

A UN deadline for Sudan and South Sudan to resume talks on oil and other critical issues looked likely to pass without action on Wednesday, as South Sudan accused Khartoum of stalling. The South’s lead negotiator, Pagun Amum told AFP that Juba has sent a letter to the AU mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, saying “we have been ready to resume talks and we are waiting.”

But according to Pagan, the Sudan and South Sudan could not reach an agreement on their oil relationship. South Sudan was willing to pay a transit fee of $0.69 per barrel to use Sudan’s oil pipelines. Despite the generous sum compared to other international oil agreements, Sudan disagreed, demanding a sum of $36.00 per barrel.

Meanwhile, almost five million people in South Sudan, more than half of the population, face increasingly severe food shortages after their government ceased oil exports in a row with the country’s neighbour, Sudan.

On a bed of sticks in one of the many straw huts in Yida, Younam, a 14-year-old boy, told the story of how his family fled bombings of their village. When his family and other refugees reached Jau, a town on the border with South Sudan, Bashir’s soldiers attacked. Hiding under a tree, Younam witnessed the rampage. “They cut the babies; then the young people,” the boy recalled. “Then they stoned my parents until they died.” Days later, Younam arrived at Yida—naked, hungry, and scared. “I’m worried there is no one who will ever be able to love me like my parents did,” he said, rubbing his eyes to hold back tears.

Adding to the desperate situation, the U.N.’s refugee agency has refused to recognize Yida as a formal refugee camp, setting up two smaller rival camps to the south. Refugees say the other camps are built on swampy, treeless land and that they are unsuitable for living. Refugees, meanwhile, keep pouring into Yida.

It is overwhelming to bear witness to these heart-breaking atrocities and to maintain compassionate responses but let us try to absorb the essence of Ubuntu and realize that what dehumanizes others inexorably dehumanizes us. As an external observer, it is important to be emotionally present and self-aware to be able to find appropriate ways to help those in need.

The Real Hunger Games is in Sudan/South Sudan

Many thousands have been been displaced along the border with South Sudan.

Many thousands have been been displaced along the border with South Sudan

“I was running from the sound of the Antonov (aeroplane), carrying my baby, when the bombs dropped and cut my leg,” a civilian, Juad, said.

Sudanese armed forces are continuing to bomb the Nuba Mountains area in response to the rebels fighting them. Sudan has used hunger as a weapon of war, driving people from their farms.

There is no food, this is what we eat,” Juad said, displaying a tin bowl of chopped leaves and dry seeds.

“Since the war started, the people have been terrified, living in caves. There’s no way to grow anything or graze our cows… nothing is here,” said Ahmed Tia, a local commissioner of Buram county, sitting on a leather office chair under a tree.

The region is too volatile for the international community to supply aid, so no food is coming into the area that way either. Hundreds of refugees per day are embarking on the three- to seven-day journey to get to refugee camps on the other side of the border in South Sudan.The rainy season begins in a few weeks and will last until October, effectively trapping them without any supplies.

The same exact situation is unfolding in Blue Nile state. More than 200,000 people are in dire need and elderly and children are already starting to die. Many people live in caves in the hills to avoid aerial bombing, which happens day and night.

Rebels and Malawi’s leader have zeroed in the main culprit, President al-Bashir. One new rebel group the Sudan Revolutionary Front aims are:

“They want to change the way Sudan is governed, and that means overthrowing Bashir’s Islamist regime in Khartoum. That might seem slightly ridiculous — the idea of this funny little rebel group that no one’s heard of fighting its way to Khartoum. But they seem to be notching up some victories against the northern army.”

They’ve forged alliances with other rebel groups, including rebels from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile with the goal of representing a united presence of resistance from the eastern to the western border, Tristan McConnell, GlobalPost’s correspondent said.

Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda has said she does not want Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, to attend a summit in July.

Despite the pressure, Sudan is continuing its aerial bombing campaigns on innocent civilians. How do we attempt to provide some hope and security to a place that is desperately unsafe?

The Worst We Feared: Sudan and South Sudan at War


On Friday Sudan launched a counterattack on South Sudan over the disputed territory of Heglig. Sudanese military spokesman Al Sawarmi Khaled Saad told reporters in Khartoum the army was close to Heglig, and is aiming not just to take over the area but also to destroy South Sudan’s forces in the area. A Unity State government spokesperson in the state capital Bentiu, confirmed the aerial bombings near the border:

“The areas in the north of Unity State are still subject to Antonovs (planes). We don’t have the updates yet between Heglig and Kelet, but all those areas they are subjected to bombing.” – South Sudan Spokesperson, Gideon Gatfan. South Sudan’s military spokesman Philip Aguer told Radio Dabanga that the Sudanese army is still around 30 km from Heglig and said South Sudan is still completely in control of the area.

Calls from Khartoum to mobilize for war in Heglig have reportedly failed amongst the Misseriya in two towns in South Kordofan, El Muglad and Dibab. Witnesses said the Misseriya of the western sector in South Kordofan are not willing to die for the government in a conflict they do not support.

The UN and African Union have unsuccessfully demanded immediate ceasefire, since President Bashir has refused to negotiate with Juba unless they withdraw their forces from Heglig. On the other hand, South Sudan’s lead negotiator, Pagan Amum, said his country was ready to withdraw under a UN-mediated plan.

“On the ground, we are ready to withdraw from Heglig as a contested area … provided that the United Nations deploy a UN force in these contested areas and the UN also establish a monitoring mechanism to monitor the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement,” he told reporters.

Sudan has taken it a brutal step further by targeting ethnically Southern Sudanese living in Sudan. Over 5,000 South Sudanese citizens living in a camp in the Sharef area of East Darfur were forced out, looted, and had their homes burned down and destroyed on Monday by a group of Sudanese militia. There have also been a series of rape crimes carried out by militias loyal to the Sudanese government throughout Darfur, targeting displaced girls and women in camps. It is as if there is no end to abuse and violence.

This long-lasting conflict is rooted in major disputes still not settled since South Sudan’s independence in July last year.

“They have no agreement on oil, they have no agreement on their border, they have no agreement on citizenship, they have no agreement on Abyei and indeed these were issues that were meant to be resolved before independence. Also in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, the popular consultations in the political process which was to incorporate all the people of those regions into the larger Sudan were abandoned.” US ambassador Susan Rice

It might not be as simple as both countries coming to some sort of negotiation and resolution over these pertinent issues, but it would at least be a beginning to light at the end of the vicious tunnel.

Hearing the Cries, Heeding the Cries

Nakivale refugee camp has been home to thousands of Congolese during and since DR Congo's civil war

Nakivale refugee camp has been home to thousands of Congolese during and since DR Congo's civil war


This week’s news offers a small glimpse of hope as the thousands of lives that are being jeopardized in the Nuba region is finally grasping the attention of the international community, government officials, and the media with recent visits by Anne Curry and Nick Kristof.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday accused the Khartoum government of actively trying to undermine the government of South Sudan and suggested that the US is prepared to take measures against Bashir. Her comments came in response to Representative Ed Royce’s (R OC, CA) introduction of a new piece of legislation last week to expand the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice program to include those wanted for the most serious human rights abuses, which includes Bashir’s indictment by the ICC.

The UN Security Council also called on the Sudanese government and the SPLM-N to cooperate fully and ensure that humanitarian assistance is delivered to those suffering from the rising levels of malnutrition and food insecurity. However, as attention is finally turned to these atrocities, attention is not enough, genocide by attrition still continues.

“We are still expecting them, they are still around us and now we don’t sleep in the houses, we are sleeping in the bush. That means the war is still there, no change.” Meluth Kur Jok, an elder who has sought sanctuary in Jonglei’s Akobo town since five close relatives were killed and 80 children abducted in an attack on his home village of Woulang a few weeks ago, told IRIN of his fears of more violence.

An unlikely actor, an American man married to a Nuba woman, Ryan Boyette, is risking his life to collect video of atrocities and has set up a network of local citizen journalists to document the atrocities and starvation in hopes of making the world care enough to intervene. So far the Associated Press, CNN, Fox News and Al-Jazeera have used his videos or photographs, and he plans to post more on a website, and he was the one that helped Nick Kristof enter the Nuba Mountains.

Now more than ever we can feel the value of Ubuntu and realize that if one person is suffering, we are all suffering and must heed the cries for help and humanitarian assistance to the starving and afflicted people of South Kordofon/Nuba Mountains.


All is not as it appears in the DRC as little is done to provide safety and security to the endangered and constantly antagonized Congolese civilian population. It is in the works to open up a third refugee camp in Uganda to cope with a influx of at least 100 people a day crossing the border to escape an upsurge in violence in eastern region of DRC. However, the population continues to be at risk from killings, abductions, and rape by armed men in the Eastern Kivu provinces, during transit, and in refugee camps. It is a situation replicated in thousands of registered and unregistered displaced persons settlements throughout the Great Lakes region. So what is being done?

The first case brought to the International Criminal Court filed in 2004 charging Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga with war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under age 15 as soldiers during the conflict in 2002, has come to a verdict to be heard on March 14. This will be the ICC’s first judgment since its conception a decade ago. As an avid follower of DRC’s long entrenched conflict watching  heinous human rights abuses and brutal rapes committed, it’s extremely disappointing that this narrowly focused case is the only one being heard after nine years and does not even come close to address the extent of crimes endured by the thousands of civilians everyday. It is also important to mention that Lubanga’s co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda charged by the ICC at the same time with war crimes relating to the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Ituri is currently untouched and a Congoloses general.

“There has never been a systematic attempt to address the issue of impunity within the Congolese justice system,” said Aaron Hall, Enough Project Congo policy analyst and report co-author. “The lack of accountability for war crimes including the murder of civilians, rape, plunder, and extortion is one of the key obstacles to creating an environment for peace and development in eastern Congo.”

I believe the ICC and the international community should work much harder with local partners to begin to hold perpetrators accountable, tackle impunity, and bring an ounce of justice to victims and survivors in the DRC.


Burma’s on the surface changes are twofold. On the one hand Burma has headed toward reform and cease-fires reached with ethnic insurgents, and unprecedented open discussion about human rights violations, including in Kachin State where fighting since last June has displaced 70,000 people. However, on the other hand, the Burmese army is acting no better than it has in the past six decades, with reports of sexual violence, use of forced labor and firing on civilians.

“With all the changes happening in central Burma, it’s quite alarming that the military has shown absolutely no compunction to change its behavior,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher, David Mathieson told the Wilson Center.

Mathieson also noted less-documented rights abuses by some ethnic armed groups against their own people, including use of child soldiers—rampant too in the national army—and executions of Burma prisoners of war. It goes to show that although Burma’s release of prominent political prisoners is a step towards change, Burma has a long way to go as sporadic fighting and lack of accord between Kachin rebels and Burmese government leaves thousands of civilians in makeshift camp on the Chinese border.