Jonglei Peace of Neighbors Conference Concludes in Omaha

jpn 007OMAHA—Jonglei Peace of Neighbors Conference concluded on Sunday, August 26, 2012 with a message and a call for a new era of peace, tolerance and development. The two-day conference brought together members of Ambassador Group in the Diaspora who had gone to South Sudan’s state of Jonglei in December 2011 on a journey for peace.

What started out in Omaha, Nebraska as a casual thought experiment by a young South Sudanese man named Mawut Paul Awel who imagined that a future of peace could be built among the warring neighboring tribes of Jonglei, slowly began to gain traction and, with sustained coordination and a little bit of funding from one nonprofit organization, culminated in a fact finding mission back to the homeland.

For Mawut Paul Awel, a Dinka from Duk County, ending years of troubled relations between the Nuer and the Dinka was critically important for development to go on in the state of Jonglei.

Mawut along with fellow AG member said they watched with an unending sense of frustration how the impact of 1991 Bor Massacre has continued to weigh heavily on women and children in both societies and thought the youth might be the answer to bringing about much needed peace.

In context, the Nuer and Dinka have always had some semblance of good neighborly relations dating many decades, but saw that relation suffer during the north-south civil war especially when the Nuer carried out the Bor massacre in 1991 after Riek Machar, the current vice president of South Sudan, unsuccessfully attempted to take power from late Dr. John Garang, the Founding Father of South Sudan. Since then relations remained sour between the two tribes.

But Mawut knew, in the quietness of his imagination, that an impetus for peace in Jonglei had to be provided by people at the border. So years ago he broached the subject of peace of neighbors to Simon Deng Key, a Nuer from a neighboring Wunror County. The two young men were united by endless violence and massacres and thought the best way to bring peace would be for neighbors to start talking among themselves.

Their idea took off when they joined forces with John Dau(Dhieu Deng Leek), who founded South Sudan Institute in 2008 to focus on peace and development. Mr. Dau, through his organization, pledged financial support that meant securing flight tickets for those who would be recruited to travel back home. Thon Moses Chol embarked on the tedious work of recruiting majority of the 22 members of the Ambasador Group across North America.

AG posed_for_a_pictureBetween Saturday and Sunday, the following members of Ambassador Group were in Omaha for the inaugural conference: Moses Moyong, Kur Anyieth Kur, Peter Magai Bul, Thon Moses Chol, John Dau, Banek Kueth, John Kuek, Simon Deng Key, Mawut Paul Awel, Nyamal Biel Tutdeal, and Rebecca Deng.

Thanks to a partnership by South Sudan Institute and CARE South Sudan, the AG representatives began touring the four counties of Twic East, Duk, Wuror and Ayod, holding rallies with local and traditional chiefs.

The improbable journey came full circle when the Ambassador Group—the group of cultural ambassadors behind the Jonglei Peace of Neighbors project, which was created in 2011 following the ethnic violence among Lou Nuer, Murle and Dinka that almost threw the stability of Jonglei into jeopardy—shared with the public some of their findings and recommendations.

The theme of the 2012 conference was “Nation Building: The Roles of Exiles in the Peace-Building and Development of South Sudan.”

This year alone Jonglei suffered massacres in Pibor, Uror, Duk Padiet, and Jalle—a sad irony for the new nation of South Sudan which was known for cutting its teeth on the implementation of peace deal (CPA) that brought about independence only to see its largest and diverse state descend into the abyss of darkness.

Such was also the backdrop against which the ambassador group carried out their daring trip which resulted in their meeting with two senior government officials in the persons of Dr. Barabbas Marial Benjamin and Dr. Riek Machar, who pledged to support the peace project.

Both leaders hosted members of AG in Juba after their trip and promised that any recommendations by the group would be acted upon by the government of South Sudan.

The partnership later resulted in arrangement by the Ambassador Group to invite the vice president to give keynote address to the conference, which he accepted.

But on August 22, 2012, the same day the vice president was to fly to the U.S., he got two shocking news of the death of his elder sister and that of Gen. Paulino Matip Nhial, who was deputy commander in chief of South Sudan.

Still, people came to the conference to hear members of the Ambassador Group speak about their heart-wrenching experiences from a recent trip despite the fact that vice president Riek Machar cancelled his trip to the U.S.

In July, the ambassador group released their ‘trailblazing’ report containing “observations and policy recommendations.”

According to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The New Sudan Vision, “the genesis of conflicts among Jonglei’s five main ethnic groups of Dinka, Nuer, Murle, Anyuak, and Jie, is hard to pinpoint because it stems in part from a strategy of incitement by Khartoum.”

The report added, however, that “other contributing factors include traditions of cattle-raiding, efforts to take revenge for the killing of fellow tribes people and attempts to liberate children and women abducted by other tribes.”

Throughout the conference, the message of peace and development became the overriding theme that all speakers wove into their speeches, starting with Mawut Paul Awel who was the master of the ceremony, down to the closing prayers delivered by one of the community leaders.

John Dau, better known for his role as a star in the Lost Boys documentary God Grew Tired of Us—who is also pulling double duty as the president of both the John Dau Foundation which operates a medical clinic in Duk County and South Sudan Institute, which was created in 2008 to address, education peace, and food security—gave a riveting speech on the need for peace building among neighboring communities and on the meaning behind the name ambassador group.

Himself a member of the Ambassador Group, Mr. Dau declared: “our message is to spread the message of peace.”

He said the idea of ambassador group came about after witnessing the many peace attempts that have failed to bring about peace in Jonglei and that a new model was worth trying. That new model was to reflect and build on the diversity of cultures and the long tradition of intermarriages dating back to centuries among Nuer and Dinka. The challenge now was how young people in North America needed to start by building on their years of experience of living together.

A believer in peace through development, Mr. Dau also talked about the great work and the live saving mission of his foundation. In December of 2011, he went to Duk County with 14 doctors from U.S. who volunteered to perform eye surgeries.

Mr. Dau said those doctors performed near miracles by operating on 300 local residents, some of whom were from neighboring Nuer counties---a testament that their model of peace of neighbors could work wonders.

He shared the moving testimony of a one Nuer woman from Mortot village who was overcome with joy after gaining her eyesight for the first time, so much so that on the day of the successful operation, the woman said the loss of her daughter was ok as long as she was now able to see her surviving grandchild with her full eyes.

The audience members were visibly moved after hearing that.

Mr. Dau explained the “four tenets of Ambassador Group” of the Jonglei Peace of Neighbors project, which he summarized as: talking with neighbors; peace through development; working without title or desire for credit; and embracing the concept of real brotherhood and sisterhood in the cause of peace.

During the trip, he said members of the Ambassador Group experienced some difficulty due to lack of water and exhaustion, not to mention fear of attack on the road. But even with that reality, he told those who attended the conference that it was worth the effort.

In between breaks, the conference attendees also watched videos of the Ambassador Group meeting in every county.

Andrea Freeman of the USAID gave a moving speech about the role and commitment of the U.S. government to the young nation of South Sudan. She showed a video clip on the conduct of the 2011 Southern Sudan Referendum on the Self-determination. She talked about the recent building of the Nimule-Juba road, which was funded by the USAID.

Then a great encouragement came from an unlikely friend of South Sudan. Mr. Ali Sogue, who is originally from the African nation of Mauritania and currently residing in the U.S., is co-founder of the Colorado African Organization. He joked about his black color and that South Sudanese often mistake him for one of their own. He called on South Sudanese to be proud of their country.

“You have oil and natural gas; you have the most fertile land and the largest swamp in the world,” he said. “You are sitting on over 6 billion worth of natural gas reserves.”

Stephen Par kuol of Jonglei Ministry of Education gave the keynote address. Mr. Kuol acknowledged that challenges exist in the state but was hopeful that a way forward exists, too.

He talked about the improving education performance among students in the state. Last examination, he said Jonglei got “76 percent better than Eastern Equatoria.”

On the security front, he said the government has carried out disarmament and that the ‘gun control’ act has been passed—a law that basically makes it a crime to own a gun in Jonglei.

But that did not sit well with some in the audience, most of whom were members of Jonglei who grilled the Minister about the efficacy of the law and its effectiveness given how murky it is in relation to other states or the national government for that matter. But overall, the conference was deemed a success.

The AG found lack of media, roads, and food as shocking in the state. They have made recommendations that are specific to each county but their overall policy recommendations seem great.

They have recommended building of roads, schools so children and youth can stay preoccupied with learning, quicker deployment of security personnel, not to mention addressing the abject poverty and lack of food.

The conference was called an initial success by South Sudanese in the Diaspora. The other question that remained unanswered throughout the conference is how fast the government of South Sudan will move to implement the ‘policy recommendations’ shared by the Ambassador Group.

That question was not helped by the absence of Dr. Riek Machar who was supposed to headline the conference but was held back by tragedies.

What was clear, however, is that many young men are already taking the mantle of leadership, raring to envision a future of Jongeli and that of peace as worthy of their time and energies.

Incidentally, similar efforts of peace building have been waged by young people from Jonglei and have gained momentum. The case in point is the Jonglei Peace Initiative, which came into existence first before the Jonglei Peace of Neighbors project and has conducted many peace building workshops in North America as well as in Jonglei.

Some of the members we talked to believed both groups are poised to shape the destiny of Jonglei—the state that bled and became the infamous laboratory of endless violence for much of the last seven years.

 


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