I woke ridiculously early yesterday morning to catch the red-eye out of Rwanda. After checking in, I sat in a passenger lounge and caught a half hour of CNN through bleary eyes. Sudan was in the headlines. On Sunday, South Sudan began a week long voting process on what is surely the most important vote of their history. After the country gained independence from the British in 1956 they have suffered through two civil wars. In the last 55 years there’s only been about 15 relatively peaceful ones. And so the voting this week is for secession, for the south of the country to split from their oppressors in the north. It is hoped that the new independence will bring peace, as well as freedom from a dubious Islamic state.
I was drawn by the images on the screen in front of me. After spending much of my last 10 years serving in South Sudan with the airplane, I’ve come to recognize the people and places. The pictures showed throngs of Sudanese – dark and tall and full of hope – waiting in long lines outside of polling stations. Waving flags. Celebrating. The reporter was surprisingly positive. What was unthinkable only months ago – a peaceful secession – is “all but inevitable” they said. Even George Clooney concurred, with the kind of profound and entertaining commentary that only a movie star set down in the middle of a geopolitical hotspot could deliver.
There in the airport terminal a couple countries removed, I celebrated along with them. I sat there with my carry-on bag of camera gear, scruffy and worn from my five-day trip to the “land of a thousand hills”, and smiled. I’ve come to enjoy being a citizen of sorts in East Africa. Not that I could ever be truly native to this part of the world, or be accepted as such. But a citizen in the way that my joys and disappointments now rise and fall with those of my African friends. I was hopeful that morning, a sentiment not exercised lightly here in Africa.
As I blasted off down the dark and foggy runway that morning, on a commercial flight back to Nairobi, I was easily reminded of the history around me. On approach to the very same runway in 1994, the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down with a shoulder-fired missile – an act which turned out to be the last straw in a bitter escalation of hate between the Hutus and Tutsis. The genocide began while the plane was still burning, and in the end it left a million dead and millions more scarred for life. Sudan amassed its casualties much slower. Two million dead in the 22 year civil war that ended with the peace agreement in 2005. Congo, one border to the west, has perhaps the most terrible story of them all. About five million dead in 8 years – but no one really knows for sure. The conflict there is so convoluted that even movie stars don’t touch it.
In a visit to Sudan last month I was reminded at how the story of Sudan’s conflict was not so much a story of battles and statistics. It was a story of individuals. The Genocide Memorial in Kigali displays a quote that says something like this: “Hitler did not murder five million Jews. He murdered one Jew, and then another one, and then another… Five million times.” It can be far too easy to quantify a tragedy like the genocide in Rwanda or the war in Sudan in terms of the scores of dead and displaced. There are a million individual stories that define these tragedies – lost in the history books when they are written, but vastly more meaningful to actual history. A pastor in one of our partner churches in Torit shared part of his story with me in December.
He told me how he fled Juba, South Sudan’s principal city, in the mid 80s when the fighting began. He was a student at the time, but soon became a soldier. Conscripted into the southern army, he rose in rank and in short order was among those leading an attack on Juba, an advance that failed but escalated the war. His accounts of close calls, from narrow misses by enemy fire to barracks brawls with his own troops, are dizzying. But the battle going on in his heart was more interesting. He is, like many a man I’ve met out here, a formerly and self described, “very, very bad man.” This thread in his life came to a critical juncture one evening when he unloaded his AK-47 in the general direction of his wife, with every intent to kill her. He gestured with his hands as he told this tale, flailing an invisible rifle at the guesthouse bedside us in the way African soldiers tend to discharge weapons – thrusting the gun in the direction of fire, unaimed and undisciplined. His wife escaped unharmed. He laughed saying that Sudanese women are good at dodging bullets. I laughed thinking that perhaps it had something to do with the drunken shooter. But God spared her life and later his too. The story picks up as an old friend, a pastor, takes him in and opens God’s word to him.
The very bad man finds forgiveness but the consequences of his former life linger. His wife leaves him and their two small children die in a refugee camp. He doubts. Is this God I’m following the real one? And then he sees a vision, a dream. God tells him to become a pastor, and he resolves to follow that call. Some twenty years later he is still following it. Today he’s an assistant Bishop in the church in the region. He’s a leader and a mentor. He’s also reconciled to his wife. He says he loves her more now than he ever did – than he ever knew he could. And God gave them more children.
As Sudan entered into this present season of uncertainty, while the votes are counted and the world waits to see if the North will actually capitulate, the good pastor is still following his call. He moved his family to a safe place out of town but he himself stayed behind to “shepherd the flock”.
In this story I was reminded of the capacity humanity has for sin and self destruction. A man who was fighting an outward rebellion with guns and mortars was at the same time embroiled in an inner one. And in God’s perspective, I wonder if that was not the more significant battle. Just as a Southerner in the last twenty years was born into the rebellion against North Sudan, we are all born into a rebellion against God. We are rebels at heart. And like the confused and ill-trained solder making a siege on Juba in 1988, we are uncertain how we got here. We are angry and sometimes afraid, and we have an unsettling suspicion that we are on a path to destruction.
This is the story of mankind. Backs turned to our creator, fists raised to heaven. But God turns our story around. (Romans 5:8)
A new year has begun and with it many people are making resolutions. Most of these will end up as nothing more than good intentions, ultimately surrendered to our truer nature or stubborn will. As I climbed out of Kigali International airport that dark morning I imagined the hills below me where so many died not long ago. I thought of Rwanda’s hopeful future, and I remembered Sudan, at the brink of another hopeful future. And like so many New Year’s resolutions, I wondered if they had any chance at all.
And then I thought of my pastor friend, a revolutionary in more ways than one. For he resolved to live as a forgiven man, and in that his story was transformed. I suspect Sudan will find its transformation at the hands of many such men.