Unhealed Wounds: Crisis resurfaces in South Sudan: A reflection on helping to process trauma and resolve conflict

This article is a part of the March 2014 Lausanne Global Analysis. See the full issue or download the PDF version

A wave of new violence that began on December 15 in South Sudan has many fearing that the world’s newest nation may be on the brink of civil war and state collapse. The problems are being traced to President Salva Kiir’s decision to dismiss his entire cabinet last July, including his Vice President and long-time political rival, Riek Machar. The two men represent the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, Dinka and Nuer respectively, and the fighting has quickly taken on interethnic overtones. Much of the focus of the international community has been on the political crisis after only two and a half years of hard-won independence.

Unhealed wounds

Without question, the key actors in this conflict must be held to account and exercise responsible leadership. However, to concentrate only on the political figures ignores the much larger, longstanding, and pernicious issue.

They are trying to steward a country of traumatized people whose psychological and emotional wounds have not healed from generations of war and oppression. It is estimated that over 6.5 million people have been immediately affected by trauma, with over 2 million dead, over 4 million displaced, and over half a million refugees. The numbers continue to swell. To leave the trauma of these experiences unaddressed is to invite a perpetual repeat of this cycle of violence, which is exactly what has marked the painful history of this region.

It was only 14 months ago that, under the banner of “Hope for a New Nation,” a two-day evangelistic festival in Juba was attended by then Vice President Machar and nearly 100,000 of his fellow citizens, representing all ethnicities. Franklin Graham delivered a rousing sermon to the jubilant crowd who seemed caught up in the euphoria of the moment. Barely more than a year later, armed militia loyal to Machar – including many defectors from the army – are now vying for control of oil-producing states. Quite possibly, some participants in that festival are now on opposing sides.

Trauma impact

Good governance, economic development, education, human rights, and church growth are all vitally important investments for the future of South Sudan, but progress on all of those fronts could be annihilated by the actions of traumatized people, especially in the absence of rule of law and security, as is the case in a fragile nation like South Sudan:

  • Trauma can appear like the petulant child who, in a brief careless rampage, knocks over countless hours of meticulous Lego construction by the other neighborhood children.
  • In the process, new wounds are created again and again.
  • When trauma and its associated emotions and questions are not processed, harbored resentment and anger can turn victims of trauma into perpetrators of violence, and whole communities can break down as a result. 

The narrative we discover to help process the pain has enormous consequences. Throughout my childhood I was given many reminders of the brutal occupation of Korea by the Japanese. Colonizing another people is an evil business, revealing some of the worst sides of humanity. Those early inputs become an integral part of a young person’s sense of identity – who you are “with” and “against.” As I have grown up, I have come to realize how subtle the line is between giving right remembrance to a tragic past – in order to heal and also to ensure that it is never allowed to occur again – and living in a perpetual state of feeling offense. 

Currently, Nuer youth known as the “White Army” are wreaking havoc in Upper Nile, Jonglei, and other flashpoint areas under the ruse of defending their “tribe.” Meanwhile, Nuer civilians have fled to UN compounds or neighboring countries in fear of being violently targeted. Each ethnic group simultaneously becomes victim and perpetrator. 

Helping to process trauma

In South Sudan, all the programming of First Fruit, Inc., the foundation I serve as Executive Director, utilizes the “trauma lens,” lest our efforts be futile. We seek out partner organizations that understand the importance of – and integrate into their activities – the processing of trauma, resolving of conflict, building of peace, and ultimately nation-building, even while providing clean water, discipleship, agricultural development, church planting, etc. 

These partners give space and permission for local people to “be angry” (Ephesians 4:26a), as grievous wrongs have been committed against them. However, they also sensitively and patiently help them to “not sin” in bitterness, clamor, and slander (Ephesians 4:26, 31), and to find and tenaciously cling to the Christian narrative of all humanity being image-bearers of God, and the church of forgiven and forgiving people being the hope of the world.

Local churches and other faith-based actors have played an active and courageous role in peacebuilding. We have seen collaborations between churches mediate peaceful resolutions to mounting community conflicts in flashpoint areas such as Jonglei and Unity states. Despite her imperfections, the South Sudanese church is arguably a more trusted and viable institution at a local level than even the government. However, progress remains uneven, and with new reports of senseless violence, the situation is often disheartening.

Like the actual roads there, the path to healing in South Sudan will at times seem unpaved and treacherous, but we willingly take the long journey with our brethren there in faith that the eventual destination will be that nation’s flourishing. 

Paul Park is the Executive Director at First Fruit, Inc., a grantmaking foundation based in Newport Beach, California. Prior to First Fruit, he served in strategy, corporate development, and international licensing roles at Amgen, Inc., the world’s largest biotechnology company. He can be reached at [email protected].