South Sudanese Women’s Plea to Sudan’s Leaders: Stop the Violence

by Heather Robinson

When the Elephant Fights, the Grass is the One That Suffers: South Sudanese Women Plead for Leaders to Stop the Carnage

Last Saturday Riek Machar, South Sudan’s former vice president, addressed a group of South Sudanese-Americans at the Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown west in Manhattan.

Machar had traveled to New York to participate in a summit of world heads of state and government organized by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Listeners, almost all Sudanese-Americans who numbered in the hundreds, had traveled from as far away as Nebraska and Ontario, Canada, to hear Machar and to impress upon him the urgent need for South Sudan’s leadership and rebels to respect a peace agreement signed in August.

Women, some in elegant, full length formal dresses and brightly colored scarves and skirts, comprised a large portion of the crowd, and spoke beforehand to a reporter with force and conviction about the need to organize and to stick up for civilians who have been disproportionately victimized in the conflict.

Machar opened his remarks, which were preceded by the U.S. and South Sudanese national anthems, by recognizing those who had traveled far, from throughout what he termed the “Diaspora.”

He stressed that the most important aspect of the peace agreement, to which he had been one signatory, to his forces is “commitment to establish a federal state in South Sudan.”

The crowd greeted each mention of federalism with applause. But before his speech, numerous South Sudanese-Americans who had traveled from far to hear him, while respectful toward him, also expressed frustration over his and other leaders’ failure to halt the violence entirely.

Jacinta Elioba, a peace advocate and Queens resident who in August traveled along with Sudanese-American peace activist Simon Deng to Addis Ababa to press South Sudan’s leaders for peace, turned out last weekend at Hotel Pennsylvania to hear Machar.

Elioba (pictured above) says she is appealing to both Machar, whose rebels have been at war with South Sudan’s leadership, as well as South Sudan’s leaders, to stop the violence that has claimed nearly 80,000 lives in the past year and a half, disproportionately hurting children and women. She asks President Obama to use all his leverage – short of boots on the ground – to ensure the warring parties honor the peace agreement they signed in August.

“Nobody don’t want to hear no gun,” she said. “We just need someone with oversight to make sure they do the right thing.”

When Elioba met with Machar, she viewed herself as having a special responsibility to represent the “voice of women,” she said, adding that she told him, “Any leader in any country, you are supposed to protect your people first.”

Referencing decades of war waged by Sudan’s Islamist Northern government that claimed the lives of millions of Christians and others in the South and resulted in the eventual creation of South Sudan as an independent state in July 2011, Elioba said of the current war, “This time around I am more hurt because we are all South Sudanese killing each other.”

Deng and Elioba traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August to appeal to both Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and former Vice President of South Sudan, who has been accused by South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit of fomenting a coup, and Mayardit. Machar made himself available to meet with the peace advocates and Mayardit did not. Both Mayardit and Machar signed a peace agreement in August.

Elioba added that she stressed to Machar in her personal meeting with him the disruptive and brutal effects of the fighting on South Sudan’s children.

“We fought 21 years ago … We are supposed to be talking about how to better ourselves … Now our children aren’t going to school. The leaders are saying we want every kid to go to school. We know it isn’t true; I got angry.”

Asked what Machar said in response, Elioba replied, “He said, ‘We are working for peace but we need to make sure we have a system in place, and law.’”

Both South Sudan’s present government and the rebels signed, she said, but the conflict still rages. “They have been saying since last year, ‘Oh, we condemn this,’” said Elioba. “How are you going to keep condemning and the same thing keeps happening?”

Elioba joined Deng on a hunger strike in June that was designed to spark media coverage and raise awareness about the mass slaughter in South Sudan and the need for President Obama to force the warring parties to halt the violence and come to the negotiating table. Deng went without food for 40 days, Elioba for two weeks. Deng ended his hunger strike in July.

Other Sudanese-Americans who turned out to hear Machar last weekend lamented the conflict’s disproportionate toll on civilians, in some cases the relatives of those who have found security in the West. This year, Deng’s great aunt and 9-year-old niece were killed in the fighting.

“We are focusing on innocent civilians, the children,” said Nyachan Thach, 36, a social worker and representative of South Sudan Women United. “As a mother I feel great sympathy for them.”

“I came from Canada,” said Nyawal Chang, 39, a clothing retailer from Kitchener, Ontario who also serves as a leader in South Sudan Women United, a U.S.-based, pro-peace activist group dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of South Sudanese civilians. “We are supporting our people. We have family suffering there. Even if we are American or Canadian citizens, how can we be happy here when our relatives there are suffering?”

Some said they had turned out to hear Dr. Machar in hopes he would honor the peace agreement, and called on President Obama to continue to provide oversight so that both sides stick to the peace agreement.

“I came because there are people who just signed a peace agreement and we are here to listen and then ask for peace,” said Bismark Elfayous, 49, who works in transportation in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “South Sudan came as a result of the U.S. government. We are happy the U.S. recently brought the two sides together to sign a peace agreement. The U.S. should continue to keep an eye on [the situation in terms of] implementation of the peace agreement. There should be a mechanism for monitoring both sides; we are still pressing the U.S. to put that in place.”

“I’m here because I heard the leaders are here; they said they signed a peace agreement with paper and pen but we need implementation,” said Elfayous’s wife Esterina Peterbilal, 51, a homemaker and student. “These warring parties – when they sign an agreement they need to mean it. We need development. We need hospitals, schools, private business, equality, justice.”

Peterbilal lamented the heavy toll warring leaders and soldiers have inflicted on an unarmed civilian population.

“When the elephant fights the grass is the one that suffers,” she said, citing an African proverb. “If we women don’t speak up, we will disappear.”