At a Senate hearing in March, actor and Sudan activist George Clooney was asked about how to keep Americans, especially youth, engaged with the conflict and hunger in South Sudan. Can people here in the U.S. feel a sustained connection to a country many thousands of miles away?
Imagine for a moment a country that has recently gained its independence. War, territorial and boundary disputes, and the inability of the young government to cope with emergencies are the tragic realities.
Cities and towns have come under assault from their northern neighbor, forcing civilians to flee their homes in terror. Farmers have been forced away from their land by armies, thus ruining food production.
What you just read would describe South Sudan today. The description could also fit the United States during the War of 1812.
For when the United States was a young nation, like South Sudan now, it experienced war on its soil. This year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron talked about at their White House meeting in March. During that war the British burned the White House to the ground. After the War of 1812 had ended, little by little the two sides moved away from conflict and toward partnership.
The Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817 disarmed the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, which during the war were the scene of naval battles and fierce bombardments on coastal towns. A naval arms race was averted. This allowed the U.S. border with the British colony of Canada to develop in peace rather than diverting resources into costly warships which might have provoked a new war.
One of the most tense standoffs between Britain and the U.S. in the decades after the War of 1812 was over who owned the Oregon Territory of the Northwest. In 1846 veteran diplomat Albert Gallatin, one of the peace commissioners during the War of 1812, published an essay urging calm between the two rivals. His words for peace were what any standoff needs to get resolved.
Today, South Sudan is faced with building peace with their neighbor Sudan. The two sides fought a civil war that ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But this agreement has a long way to go before becoming a genuine peace.
Last summer, fighting erupted between South Sudan and Sudan over the disputed territory of Abyei. A United Nations Security Force has been dispatched for the demilitarizing of Abyei and to ensure protection and humanitarian aid for civilians.
In South Kordofan and Blue Nile, fighting is raging. U.S. Ambassador Princeton Lyman says “conflict has been raging there since last May, arising from issues never fully resolved in the civil war because people in those states, particularly in the Nuba mountains, fought with the South.”
As tensions remain high in the contested border state of Abyei, the Norwegian Refugee Council assists the wave of internally displaced persons seeking refuge in the south. (NRC Sudan photo)
By 1 June 2011, about 40,000 people displaced from Abyei after the town’s takeover by Sudan Armed Forces had been registered in the Abyei area, Unity State and the greater Bahr El-Ghazal region were receiving humanitarian assistance. Photos: UNMIS/Issac Gideon.
Maban county in Upper Nile State. Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived here, fleeing conflict across the border in Sudan’s Blue Nile State. Since the beginning of 2012, the UN World Food Programme has been providing food assistance to some 80,000 refugees in two camps. (WFP/Ahnna Gudmunds)
There is also internal conflict in South Sudan between rival tribes, the Lou Nuer and the Murle, that has displaced many thousands of people in the Jonglei state. These two tribes have repeatedly attacked each other over the years through cattle raids and kidnappings. The scale of their battles, though, has increased substantially in recent months.
In May a peace conference is set to begin to deal with this deadly rivalry. Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, head of the Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance in Jonglei Committee, says, “I am expecting everybody who loves peace to participate in this process because we have lost so many people. I hope everybody will come, sit together and try to find a lasting solution for the problems.”
There is an initiative underway to collect the guns that have proliferated in Jonglei and there are plans for a buffer zone between the Lou Nuer and the Murle to help transition to peace.
Deng Bul says, “It is important for all citizens not to carry arms because the arms are tempting [people] to unnecessary actions. If we want to have development in Jonglei, we must make sure that everybody is not carrying a gun.”
South Sudan desperately needs its own peacemakers before it’s too late. The internal and external conflict has harmed the region’s food supply. Drought has also struck. These two elements, combined with preexisting poverty, are creating a hunger crisis approaching famine. The UN World Food Programme, which relies on voluntary funding, says nearly five million people in South Sudan are suffering from hunger. Food is desperately needed to reinforce the peace process.
South Sudan needs the United States and others to stay with them during these rough waters as it tries to build a road to peace.
As we mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, students and other citizens can take time to reflect on the peace with Britain that emerged from the ashes. This learning adventure in American history can also offer a way for students and others to connect with South Sudan. How can this newly independent nation build their own road to peace?
For what the governor of Ohio, Thomas Worthington, proclaimed after the War of 1812 rings true. Worthington said we must seek the day “when bloody wars engendered in pride and wickedness, and prosecuted in fury and unrighteousness, shall forever cease, and when every human being, in the true spirit of humanity, meekness and charity,shall do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with his God.”