When I wrote the poem provided below about the Rt. Rev. Nathaniel Garang, the Bishop of Bor, Episcopal Church of Sudan, I knew only that there had been a terrible massacre in Bor, the capital of what is now Jonglei State. I knew that children had been stuffed into burlap sacks and thrown alive into the Nile to drown.
What I did not know was who was responsible for the massacre at Bor. When Bishop Garang had related how his family members had died in this terrible atrocity, I assumed that it was at the hands of soldiers of the National Islamic Front regime, the Sudan Armed Forces.
But it was not Khartoum — at least not directly — that was responsible for the Bor Massacre. It was committed by Southern Sudanese against their fellow Southern Sudanese.
On August 28, 1991, three Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) commanders, Riek Machar, Lam Akol, and Gordon Koang, attempted to overthrow Dr. John Garang, the head of the SPLA. Their coup failed, but they split from the SPLA and called themselves “SPLA Nasir.”
Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment: A History of the Sudanese Church across 2000 Years, says, “Southern resistance was bedevilled by factionalism and by inter-ethnic strife that probably caused more suffering and loss of life than the conflict against Khartoum.” (emphasis added)
This invaluable history then describes the Bor massacre that took place in October -November 1991 when armed bands of both military and civilian forces of Riek Machar and Lam Akol:
swept into Bor territory, slaughtering and destroying everything they found. An estimated million head of cattle were slaughtered or looted. Tens of thousands of people were killed, many with great brutality and others were abducted. . . . it was on a scale and possessed a ferocity that indicate that the intention was to wipe out the Dinka Bor economy, destroy the social structure of the people and with it their will to survive. . . . Indeed it was the most devastating and desolating blow suffered by the Bor people, or probably any people in Southern Sudan, throughout the whole course of the war. It is the defining event for all that has happened among the Bor Dinka in the subsequent years.
And now another devastating and desolating blow, suffered not just by the people of Bor and Jonglei State, but by all those communities that have been affected by the violence that began on the night of December 15, 2013.
Once again, factionalism and inter-ethnic strife, springing out from the attempted coup of the same Riek Machar who was responsible for the 1991 Bor Massacre, have left thousands dead. This has been a blow to the people of South Sudan, as the unity of one nation has disintegrated into Dinka and Nuer killing each other, and even those of other groups are caught in the middle and/or killed in the crossfire. It is a blow to the South Sudanese in Diaspora, and to the marginalized people of Sudan, especially the people of Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile State, and Darfur. And it is a blow to all those who care about this fledgling nation.
Mary (now Reverend) Alueel wrote the hymn that gave the title to the book mentioned above, not long after the Bor Massacre:
Let us give thanks;
Let us give thanks to the Lord
in the day of devastation
and in the day of contentment.
Jesus has bound the world round
with the pure light of the word of his father.
When we beseech the Lord
and unite our hearts and have hope
then the jok has no power.
Nhialic has not forgotten us.
Evil is departing and holiness is advancing,
these are the things that shake the earth.
Do not look back; we are the people
who have received the life of Christ.
Let us show forth the light
of the Son of Nhialic.
Do what you are able to do
according to the gift
which has been given you.
One way in which hymns like Mary Alueel’s were used during the war was to give instruction to the people in the tenets of their faith. Those same words are an admonition in the current crisis for the people to “unite” their hearts, abandon loyalty to tribe over nation and Lord, “and have hope.” These things (beseeching the Lord in unity, knowing that God has not forgotten them) will “cause evil to depart,” “holiness to advance,” and can give hope for the future in this new day of devastation that has come upon the people of South Sudan.
(Dedicated to the Rt. Reverend Nathaniel Garang, Bishop of Bor, Episcopal Church of Sudan)
The bishop blessed my Fiona, with hands, dark and strong,
Hands that embraced the Cross where shrapnel shards –
MiGs and RPGs burning villages and forcing flocks to flee –
Are by fusion and faith transformed.
The bishop blessed my Fiona, on his knees, eye level.
Eyes dark and strong, over-full with pain, and memory of a man
With Cross and Bible
Murdered and dismembered
His scattered pieces
Multiplied into 32,000 martyrs-to-be.
The bishop blessed my Fiona and me, her mother.
How could he help but think of other mothers
And of children,
Burlap sacks struggling, then quietly sinking in the Nile;
Dying in desert dust and dung; or branded and sold?
The currency of the Cross.
(Faith J. H. McDonnell, in Women’s Uncommon Prayers: Our Lives Revealed, Nurtured, Celebrated, Morehouse Publishing, 2000)