Portland Press Herald
Americans who follow international news know plenty about terrorist attacks in Europe and fighting in the Mideast, but practically nothing about the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Friday night, Kwan Malwal set about to change that.
With about a dozen others who have connections to the new African state, Malwal’s group stood at the edge of Monument Square and held signs informing passing drivers about the country’s troubles. An occasional honk, Malwal said, meant he had touched the conscience of someone who might learn more about what’s going on a half a world away and join him in speaking out.
“You just hope that somebody heard you,” said Malwal, who lives in Saco. “And you know you did what you could do.”
South Sudan’s tenuous five-year existence is threatened by a civil war that has left thousands starving. Created in 2011 after a referendum approved a split from Sudan, South Sudan is considered one of the most fragile states in the world.
For Malwal, the tragedy is personal. He left Sudan for the United States in 2002 and came to Maine, where a small community of about 3,000 Sudanese have settled. His parents stayed behind.
He hasn’t spoken to his mother in more than two years, but heard through connections this month that she was alive.
Malwal said Sudan needs international intervention, whether from the U.S., the United Nations or some other multinational force. Life is hard there in the best of times, he said, but millions have been driven from their homes, deepening the crisis.
Before the two countries split, those in the northern part of the state fought those in the south who wanted independence. That northern Sudan was predominantly Muslim and southern Sudan mostly Christian added religion to the volatile mix, he said.
South Sudan eventually won its independence, but a fragile power-sharing arrangement felt apart two years ago over accusations that one side was plotting a coup.
Now, “people are dying,” Malwal said, while two rival tribes feud over who is in charge and periodically wage battles. Recent fighting in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, left 300 dead and a shaky ceasefire has been sporadically observed, according to reports.
Malwal, a veteran who served in Iraq, said the only solution is for the international community to go in, enforce peace and get aid to the thousands who have been forced from their homes into refugee camps.
Malwal said he does what he can to tell others about what it going on in the country where he was born.
One of those he has reached is Manna Puk, whose father is a Sudanese refugee. Puk, 16, was born in Maine, but grew up listening to her father explain what was going on in his homeland and she shares his hopes for peace.
Puk has never been to South Sudan, but traveled near there when she visited Africa with her mother, who is from Ethiopia. Friday night, she was out holding a sign to try to reach others.
Puk said she can’t understand why thousands are dying “and nobody is doing anything about it.”
Malwal said the situation in South Sudan is “just a back-and-forth” that leaves no one able to form a functioning government.
He said the tribal divisions are not as strong among the Sudanese who have settled in Maine, but they are just below the surface.
“You can see the tension in people,” he said, and many avoid talking about Sudanese politics to avert arguments.
But all of those who came to Maine from South Sudan want to see peace in Africa, he said.
“It’s a very poor environment, there’s death from hunger, killing. It’s just a disaster,” Malwal said.