As a GTA community fractured by tribal violence back home gathered at McMaster University recently, emotions ran high. But it was a first step toward healing.
Nov 24, 2014(Nyamilepedia) — On a recent Saturday, 120 South Sudanese immigrants gathered at McMaster University for a peace talk. Emotions ran high, tears were shed and the air was tense.
It was the first time in a year Sudanese from different tribes had sat down together for an “open and frank dialogue” since ethnic violence broke out in their distant homeland last December, dividing the newly independent South Sudan along tribal fault lines.
These old friends from the Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Equatorian and other ethnic groups had not spoken with one another as the tension back home spilled into the diaspora in Canada, fuelling animosity based on old allegiances.
“Before December, everyone regardless of their tribes would get together all the time for our national celebrations on Jan. 9, May 16 and July 9. When one loses a family member, we get together for a memorial,” said Daya Batim Moses, a Nuer who came to Canada a decade ago and says she has lost two uncles in South Sudan in the latest conflict.
“Now there is nothing. We try to avoid each other. We are losing our friendship. Everyone is consumed with anger,” added the 31-year-old mother of three boys, who came all the way from Ottawa for the peace dialogue at McMaster’s Centre for Peace Studies.
“This conflict is contagious. It has spread and broken up the community. It’s so sad.”
Distraught over his fractured community, Simon Taidor Mach, a Nuer who lives in Hamilton, wrote to McMaster University president Patrick Deane earlier in the summer for help after hearing a speech he gave about the university’s commitment to community development.
“This social and political disease of conflict and suffering must be understood, diagnosed when we encounter it, healed by effective means and prevented from occurring in the future,” said Mach, 39, who was resettled here by the Canadian government in 2003 from a United Nations refugee camp.
“This conflict has had a severe negative impact on the innocent population. It touches everyone. We needed an opportunity to share our experience and listen to each other in order to rebuild our trust and unity. If we can unite here, then we can have a positive impact on what’s going on there.”
When Bonny Ibhawoh, a history professor and former director of McMaster’s peace studies centre, was tapped to work with the community, he had reservations.
“This was unprecedented. It was the first time a community came to us and asked for help in such a formal, direct approach,” recalled Ibhawoh, who’s originally from Nigeria.
“It was difficult because the community was so fractured and there was no clarity of the role of the university in this forum among the community members.”
To ensure an “open and frank dialogue,” Ibhawoh invited Douglas Johnson, a world-renowned scholar in the history of Sudan and South Sudan, to make a factual presentation, and vetted everyone invited to ensure the event included viewpoints across the ethnic spectrum.
“The event was the first time for them to see their friends and countrymen from other tribes in a long time. I was skeptical at first and didn’t want to get involved because the community was so polarized,” said Ibhawoh.
“There were a few outbursts and a woman had to be led out because she was very emotional. It’s understandable: these people were traumatized by what’s happened in South Sudan. Conflict resolution begins with dialogue between opposing parties. They’ve made a major step.”
A report documenting the day-long community conversation will be released by the end of the year, Ibhawoh said, with the hope that the dialogue will continue and the community will follow up with an action plan for peace-building.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, but what started as a power struggle among tribal leaders within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement escalated into ethnic violence in December between the majority groups, the Dinka and Nuer tribes — displacing over two million people.
Despite mediation talks brokered by East African countries in early November, fighting between government troops and rebels has continued.
Machar Buol, who arrived Canada in 2002 through a World University of Canada scholarship, said the diaspora community was thrilled to see South Sudan win its independence from the Islamic authoritarian regime in Khartoum in 2011.
“Some lose vision by the ignorant action of politicians. Some of the tension is the remnant of the 1990s. There’s some misunderstanding” on where the Dinka people stand, said the 36-year-old Dinka from Toronto.
“The government has failed its citizens. The Dinka are not happy with the government, too. We are all both victims and perpetrators. No one is not impacted by this conflict.”
Gabriel Sabino, a Shilluk who was sponsored here by the Canadian government, said the dialogue at McMaster marks the beginning of a long healing process.
“Not everyone supports this idea. There is still resistance and animosity within the community. The harm is done,” said the 44-year-old Mississauga man. “It will take time to rebuild. But we need to lead by example.”
Published on Thu Nov 20 2014 by Toronto Star Newspapers