Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

South Sudan conflict halts homecoming

Now-Winnipeg resident kept away from nation as fighting intensifies

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David Atem is concerned he and other South Sudanese will lose their new homeland due to fighting.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

David Atem is concerned he and other South Sudanese will lose their new homeland due to fighting. Photo Store

They say you can never go home.

Reuben Garang waited nearly 30 years to go back to South Sudan, but, once again, fighting kept the Lost Boy from his home.

"It's very disappointing," said his friend, David Atem, in Winnipeg who got a call from Garang early Monday morning. Garang got as far as Kampala, Uganda but could go no further, said Atem, who is from the same area in Jonglei state as Garang. Fighting broke out there Dec. 15 -- the day Garang left Winnipeg -- and hundreds have since died.

"At this point, he's not going to make it," said Atem, who works at the University of Winnipeg where Garang, 41, just earned a master's degree in development practice and sustainability.

In an interview before he left on his South Sudan journey, Garang told the Free Press many forces were drawing him home.

'My country is already turning into (an) abyss'

-- Reuben Garang

"All these years, I'm thinking in my bones, in my blood, in my mind that my village is somewhere."

The father of four planned to hold a memorial service for his parents in their village, Twic, and connect with surviving siblings and relatives. That's not going to happen, Garang said in a recent email.

"My country is already turning into (an) abyss." Canada's Foreign Affairs Department issued an advisory Saturday against all travel to the Republic of South Sudan "due to the present high level of armed conflict, inter-ethnic violence and violent crime."

Garang is blogging about his experience and the frustration and fear of not being able to contact loved ones in South Sudan.

"I haven't talked to my brother and sister's families for the last three days... I wish my relatives are in ... hiding and not dead." He got word one of his sisters, her children and the children of a sister who died had fled to a refugee camp in northern Uganda, and he hoped to visit there before returning to Canada.

"It's a tough time for people whose relatives live in Jonglei," Garang wrote. "One of the people who escaped from there through (the) River Nile said there is no food, water and medication for people trapped in the war zone... I hope for the best to all civilians caught up in this power struggle among power-hungry politicians."

Before gaining independence in a referendum two years ago, the South Sudanese were united in a fight against an oppressive Arabic-speaking government based in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Decades of civil war had killed more than two million people and displaced millions more.

After winning independence, a government power struggle in South Sudan has devolved into an ethnic battle between its two biggest tribes -- the Dinka and the Nuer, said Atem.

"People are representing their communities rather than the government of South Sudan," said Atem.

When South Sudan was fighting for independence, supporters of the regime in Khartoum would say "They govern us because we cannot govern ourselves," Atem recalled. Now he fears that has become a reality. After losing their relatives and their culture, millions of refugees saw the creation of South Sudan -- a place to call home -- and now may lose it. "This is very bad."

The world's newest country will end up a failed state if neutral nations don't intervene, said Atem.

"If 500 are killed there in two days, how many people will die in 10 days or 20 days?" he asked.

"If we don't control the current situation, we will disintegrate and be even worse than Somalia," said Atem. "It will be huge, the human lives lost," he said. "Innocent people are not being protected."

Atem hopes Canada's foreign affairs minister will get involved in a peacemaking role in South Sudan.

"I want John Baird to take a very aggressive initiative to bring these people to the table," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2013 B4

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