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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People are Dying While the Politicians are Talking

Aid workers prepare rations of sorghum (AFP, Giulio Petrocco)

Aid workers prepare rations of sorghum (AFP, Giulio Petrocco)

As negotiations are slowly underway in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, humanitarian crises worsen. Internally displaced persons in camps in Jebel Marra in North Darfur, have no aid or relief access. Also spiked water shortages in Zam Zam camp are leaving displaced people without water. The local authority have reduced the fuel quota for water stations manned by UNICEF and at other privately owned stations. The crisis has increased the price of a barrel of water to 10-12 Sudanese pounds inside the camp, and aggravated long queues in front of the eight UNICEF stations, which are only operating for three hours a day. People in Kokaya in East Darfur have also been suffering water shortages for the month following the failure of the only water station in the area. A citizen of the area told Radio Dabanga that the lack of water has killed livestock including donkeys and cows. Meanwhile, Tolom refugee camp in eastern Chad has been suffering from a lack of water for the past four days after a pump stopped working, leaving 25,000 people without access to drinking water. Also shortages of drinking water in Seraf Umra, Dankoj and El Nasim camps for internally displaced people is getting worse as pumps are failing and other stations have reportedly been sabotaged by unknown groups. As if things couldn’t get any worse, there is also a famine threat in the Nuba Mountains with thousands left without access to food, water, and assistance.

Meanwhile, the peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan are said to be yielding slow progress despite reports of fresh clashes on the ground and questions about Sudan’s withdrawal from the disputed Abyei region.  Tensions were high as the latest round of negotiations opened with a South Sudanese demand for sanctions against Khartoum.

“The government of Sudan did not withdraw from Abyei within the two weeks as required.  This is a violation. We also asked the representative of United Nations to report this violation, and this non-compliance by the republic of Sudan, and we expect Sudan to suffer sanctions and measures from the Security Council as promised.” South Sudan’s Chief Negotiator, Pagan Amum.

Although recent negotiations are a great cause of celebration and progress between the two countries, my concern is with the dire need of the people on the ground who are facing humanitarian crises and water shortages everyday. I hope the leaders and mediators spend each day of negotiation wisely, realizing that with every day passing, humanitarian conditions are worsening.

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?

As If Widespread Conflict Isn’t Enough, Now Food and Price Challenges Plague South Sudan

A local farmer harvests sorghum. (Photo Courtesy Fred Noy/UN Photo)

A local farmer harvests sorghum. (Photo Courtesy Fred Noy/UN Photo)

Thousands of civilians have been displaced following ground clashes between the SPLA and the SAF and aerial bombings by Sudan. As if that wasn’t enough despair, the rising fighting has more than doubled the price of basic commodities and food for Southern Sudanese living in the areas of Unity, Upper Nile, Northern and Western Bahr al Ghazal states. For the last month, traders who usually import foodstuffs from Southern Kordofan in Sudan to South Sudan have been victims of violence en route.

“A 20 litre jerry can of cooking oil rose from 20 to 40 dollars in the last two weeks,” said Simon Kenyi, a teacher in Bentiu.

The official death toll from the conflict is not known, however, but Unity State Governor Taban Deng Guy said this week that 75 people had died in aerial bombardments in his state alone.

On top of that, Sudanese authorities have seized and impounded more than 60 vehicles carrying food across the border to South Sudan, Sudanese justice minister, Mohammed Boshara Dosa, said on Thursday while inspecting White Nile State. He warned that Khartoum intends to rigidly enforce a ban on smuggling to the southern neighbor and that the seizure is meant to signal the fact that Khartoum considers smuggling of food to South Sudan as “a crime tantamount to supplying the enemy with arms.”

To top it all off, on Thursday the UN decided to reduce the number of soldiers and police in the joint UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) by 4,000, citing improved security across parts of Darfur. However this is incredibly far from reality and I cannot believe this option was even mentioned when UNAMID confirmed bombings taking place in North Darfur at the beginning of this month. Displaced and refugee activists told Radio Dabanga ‘improved security in parts of Darfur’ is inaccurate and the daily rapes, looting, murder and displacement of civilians along with impunity for perpetrators and militants continue to terrorize them with no end in sight.

The coordinator of camps in North Darfur, Umda Ahmed Ateem described the humanitarian situation in the camps for internally displaced people at the very least as ‘disastrous’, stating that famine, the impune rule of government militia, murder, intimidation of civilians and rape as a weapon are widespread and part of everyday life. He said it is shameful that the UN security council has not implemented any of the 17 resolutions drafted on Darfur.

It’s frustrating and difficult to understand how and why there is a disconnect between what is being done and what thousands of displaced, starving, and devastated civilians need.

Time is Running Out

The race to help refugees in South Sudan – video

The race to help refugees in South Sudan – video

“Women wait in the heat for up to four hours twice a day, next to their long queues of buckets and jerry cans. Men with sticks and whips police the lines. Fights break out all the time. No one has to ask why. There is simply not enough water and we are running out of options and we are running out of time.” –Oxfam’s Pauline Ballman works in the Jamam Refugee Camp in South Sudan

Unity state has borne the brunt of aerial bombings by Sudan even after South Sudan had said it would withdraw from Heglig. On Monday, Sudanese warplanes bombed a market and an oil field in South Sudan, killing at least two people, after Sudanese ground forces reportedly crossed into South Sudan with tanks and artillery. There are numerous bombings taking place, just Wednesday, Sudan also bombed the village of Chotchara.

Since fighting broke out in Blue Nile state in Sudan between government forces and rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, about 85,000 people have fled into South Sudan’s Upper Nile state. The states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, where violence began last year, lie north of the border with South Sudan, and have populations who were aligned with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) during Sudan’s long civil war. Antonovs planes that bombed the refugees’ villages in Blue Nile have flown over Jamam camp, about 75km west of the border with Sudan, three times in the past week. Already the camp is barely coping with lack of water supplies with so many new people and now there are fears that more may arrive as conflict spreads. There is also the prospect of cholera breaking out as people drink dirty water to survive the dead heat. Time is running out!

The United States, spearheaded by Susan Rice said on Thursday it has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at making legally binding an African Union demand that Sudan and South Sudan stop border clashes, resume talks and resolve their many disputes.

This comes after President Obama’s announcement of a new executive-branch initiative, the Atrocities Prevention Board to strengthen the United States’ ability to prevent mass atrocities. Watch Elie Wiesel’s Introduction and President Obama’s full remarks:

Fulfilling the Pledge of ‘Never Again’

Fulfilling the Pledge of ‘Never Again’

As much as proposals and resolutions create sound progress and policies, the change must be implemented on the ground because time is running out. Sudan needs to immediately halt aerial bombings of innocent people and we need to provide assistance to those who are suffering and on the brink of death.

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.