Finding Forgiveness in South Sudan
An incredible report from someone on the ground in the world's newest nation.
I didn’t know what I would find during my time in South Sudan. Oftentimes, I try to find themes for my writing. Other times, they find me.
In the Northern Bahr el-Ghazal region of Sudan, I have uncovered a red thread. As I heard the lightness in the laughter from those who had returned home, and saw the depth of the tears that welled up in the darkest of brown eyes, it appeared.
The red thread of destiny, how it is sometimes referred to, is a concept referring to a continuum of fate, a weaving of events happening as they were meant to be. It is a theme that runs through a shared human experience. Thin and continuous it came through, tying together stories of hope and hardship, each unique yet spoken with subtle traces of forgiveness and forgetting.
To forgive. To forget.
I found it in the shy and warm smiles of Mary and Atak, who arrived off a bus from Khartoum, anticipating restoration and peace. Their bus came carrying generations of people, old and young alike; some who were born in the north and carried with them the oral memories of their homelands, passed on from their parents. Others had left when they were old enough to remember the veiled details of their lives before the war. With them came tokens of a life lived in Khartoum: large trunks and dinged pots, rusty bed frames and weathered furniture. Although the journey was dusty and long, their vibrant fabrics and matching smiles sang a song of untethered joy as they arrived.
In all of us, the heart creates room for the old to harden and fall away, allowing for a regeneration of newness in thought and spirit. It happens unexpectedly, silently at times. Sudan has done this for me, for my heart. I will look at forgiveness differently, my understanding of courage has been redefined.
Learning to forgive
“Do you know what it’s like to look for peace every day, and not see it?” he asked me, an intent look in his eyes. Sweat ran down his face in the heat of the high afternoon sun as he wrote diligently in his book.
Santino, a Sudanese man who stayed in his homeland during the war, does. I asked him to share his journey of faith and forgiveness. “During the war, we were looking for peace every day,” he said, pausing to emphasize his next statement. “I thought, if peace didn’t come soon, we would just give up. I feared for my life all of the time. Life during the war was bad indeed. We were terrorized,” he said, looking away. “There were so many years that people were suffering.”
He looked back at me. “We kept hoping it would end.”
I met this brave soul in a program that Samaritan’s Purse is implementing in South Sudan to teach the Dinka language and bible literacy to people like Santino who spent much of his life fleeing, fighting and fearing for his life. He’s trying to start over now and become educated, to find life amidst the barren promises of the past.
He has wrestled with the concept of forgiveness in the wake of shattered dreams and suffering.
“What does it mean to forgive?” I asked him.
He sat back in his chair. “I am learning to forgive the north. I am learning to read the Bible to know what God is saying. To get a clear vision.”
“Forgiveness starts with knowing where I have come from, and where I am going. During the war we knew nothing about the Christian faith. I knew God saved me, but I didn’t know about Christianity. Now I can admit wrong, I do my work differently. This church, and this program, is helping me to do this.”
Forgive without forgetting
Two hours south I met Pastor Daniel near Aweil town, whose church was rebuilt by Samaritan’s Purse after it was burned down and destroyed several times.
The church is the only permanent structure in a place that was charred and scavenged; it’s cross glistening off the main road as you drive past.
He comes to greet me.
“Please come with me. Can I show you something?” He takes my hand and leads me to an open space behind his church marked by a mound of earth, a large hump of dirt and rocks. He points. “Can you see that? Do you know what it is?” I said I didn’t.
“It is a mass grave. Right here, in this very place, is where many bodies were buried after the rebels came through and attacked. Bodies under our feet. It is a constant reminder to us about our past.”
Bodies under our feet. Blood in the soil. Reminders like this are frequent; South Sudan is scarred with both literal and figurative the wounds of the past.
He brought me into his office, a small mud and grass hut with two chairs. I asked him about the mindset of the people coming back to the south, if they are struggling in their thoughts about the justice of God.
“I preach on this often. Everyone, including myself, has to remember what happened. But what God needs from us is forgiveness. He asks us to forgive, even when it doesn’t make sense. The signing of the peace agreement was like a confession of sin; from both sides. We both did wrong.”
“We have forgiven, but we will not forget. We cannot forget.” His statement hung in the air. We sat quietly for a while, to allow time for it to settle and quiet. “We are rebuilding more than just our lives. We are relearning how to believe in hope again. ”
I thought about Rwanda and the Congo, Darfur and Cambodia; examples flooded my mind, and my heart began to ache. Forgiving, forgetting, moving forward. How does one begin?
Moving beyond anger
Wol and his family are beginning this journey. Another returnee family with a story of struggle and victory, they are focusing on their future for their children.
“We don’t have anger. What good is that for us, for the children?” Wol asked rhetorically, shaking his head. “This is where we are meant to be. The people of South Sudan are strong. We have weathered many storms … war, life in the north. Now we come home and will start new lives with our families. Soon, the past will be distant.”
Some, like Santino, are finding the courage to forgive through newly found faith. Others, like Pastor Daniel, are living it out each day in the presence of haunting reminders of past tragedies.
Courage and resolve. The examples are plentiful and rich in this region.
Wol leaves me with a parting thought that has resonated with me since I left him; one that every thought should begin with here: “Our country will be scarred by this. But we won’t be defined by it.”
So perhaps this is the statement that ushers in the next chapter for a new Sudan—the red thread—a movement of forgetting, forgiving and finding faith. A pushing away from the shadows of the past, a forging forward led by the lamp of forgiveness, lighting the way ahead. All against the backdrop of the relentless search for peace and hope.
Roseann Dennery is a relief worker with the faith-based relief and development group, Samaritan’s Purse. She resides in Haiti, but recently visited South Sudan to capture the stories and give a voice to the returnees coming home from the north.