Driven by War from His Beloved South Sudan Home, Poet Voices His People’s Plea for Peace

Poet Akol Miyen Kuol, living now in Kenya, uses his pen to call for peace as war rages in his homeland, the nascent republic of South Sudan. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than a million displaced since South Sudan’s president and its fired vice president went to war in 2013, just two years after the nation seceded from Sudan. As millions face starvation amid a near-shutdown of the nation’s economy, the bitter rivals have agreed to share power – but Kuol fears real peace will elude his homeland until new leaders take over.

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Driven by War from His Beloved South Sudan Home, Poet Voices His People’s Plea for Peace

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NAIROBI, KENYA — Growing up in a village in what is now South Sudan, Akol Miyen says he felt safe. His family tended lush farms of sorghum, maize, vegetables and peanuts. Kuol herded his family’s goats, sheep and cattle and walked them home. Rivers in the now-contested Abyei region provided villagers with abundant fish.

“We had everything – and above all freedom,” Kuol says, reminiscing at a café at Adams Arcade, an upscale mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, more than a thousand miles from his home village.

Then war came, and everything changed.

To guard Kuol’s safety, his parents sometimes sent him to live with his older sister in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. He had no one to play with because boys his age abandoned school to join armed groups. Schools closed for months as war raged on.

This was in the early 1980s, when the seeds of secession began to sprout in the predominantly Christian population in southern Sudan. Government forces battled fighters who demanded independence and control of the oil-rich Abyei, a border region that today is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. Abyei villagers had long fought with Arabic tribes from the north, but they had not previously engaged in a full-scale war.

Kuol and his family were forced to leave Abyei for good.

“It was really sad leaving my homeland to live in Khartoum unwillingly,” he says. “Since then I have not lived in Abyei.”

An editor for BBC for the region of Sudan, the Middle East and the Sahel – the biogeographic zone marking the transition between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian Savanna – Kuol turns to poetry to express his thoughts about the war and call for peace in South Sudan.

At 41, Kuol says his homeland has not been at peace for a single day of his life. He writes in “The Last Train,” one of the first two poetry books he penned in Kenya:

“Before I was born,

War was there.

When I was born,

War was still there.

And now I’m alive,

War is still there.”

His poems are an emotional roller coaster. With sadness he recalls taking his family’s bull, Matem, to graze in his village. With hope, he foresees a future when there will be no war. When South Sudan will regain peace and, consequently, its dignity. And with impatient yearning, he wonders when all of this will come to pass.

Kuol writes in another poem in “The Last Train”:

“Shame on a nation that destroys its own heritage

Shame on a nation that destroys its own image

By itself

Shame on a nation that destroys itself by itself.”

Kuol calls himself the voice of South Sudanese nationals who have remained unheard as their country is torn apart.

“I speak for the common people,” he says.

As South Sudan marks four years of independence from the north on July 9, the country is reeling from a civil war that has precipitated one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Amid a near-shutdown of the economy, more than a million people have been uprooted from their homes, and many more face starvation.

As the government and the opposition prepare to sign a power-sharing agreement, Kuol uses his poetry to call for lasting peace.

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, plunged into civil war just two years after its birth in 2011. A political crisis that occurred after President Salva Kiir sacked his vice president, Riek Machar, blew up into an armed conflict in December 2013 as soldiers allied to the two leaders started fighting each other in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, says Mustafa Biong, the former director general of information for South Sudan.

“We knew there was a crisis, but we didn’t expect the war,” says Biong, who left the office a month before the war began and now lives in Kenya.

Violence spread across the country. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, according to a joint report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an Eastern Africa development organization.

About 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes inside South Sudan, according to the report, as fighting continues in seven of the nation’s 10 states, according to a 2014 U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees report. Armed groups control some states, including Upper Nile and Unity.

The war has stalled almost all economic activity. Oil production – a major source of the country’s revenue – has dropped 20 percent, according to the World Bank.

The cost of food is skyrocketing, putting adequate nutrition out of reach for millions. International aid agency Oxfam predicts that 4.6 million people – 40 percent of the country – will be experiencing severe hunger by the end of July.

Women and girls are vulnerable to gender-based violence, and boys are being conscripted into armed groups, according to Oxfam.

Kuol left Sudan in 1993 to study in Egypt. Young Sudanese men were required to serve in the army for a year to become eligible to attend university.

“I did not want to join the army because the government was fighting my own people,” he says. “I could not fight against my own brothers.”

At the time, the Sudanese government was fighting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a armed group that demanded secession of the south.

Kuol lived in Egypt for two and a half years. He moved to Tanzania in 1997 and then to Kenya in 1999.

He has written two English poetry books while in Kenya. His third poetry book, which is in Arabic, is expected to be released soon. Kuol, whose first language is Ngok-Dinka, a language native to the South Sudan region, is keen to reach Arabic speakers in South Sudan, Sudan and the Middle East, he says.

When South Sudan gained independence from the north in 2011, Kuol decided the time was not right to return to his homeland.

“I knew South Sudan was not ready for takeoff,” he says. “There was no clear vision among the leadership to take the country forward.”

The nation’s tribal groups had not reconciled. The national army was made up of factions that remained loyal to their separate commanders, he says.

“It was a ticking time bomb,” Kuol says. “The same factions rose up against each other in 2013 when the country went into a political crisis.”

Biong agrees. The 2013 political crisis turned violent because the army was divided, he says.

“Every leader had their own battalion,” he says. “The army was also not professional. Former guerrillas were incorporated into the army without undergoing training.”

But some people believe the violence was a premeditated ploy by the government to finish off one of the local tribes.

“This is ethnic cleansing against the Nuer tribe,” says Stephen Tut, a journalist and businessman who fled the country and sought refuge in Kenya. “The government is using state machinery to kill its own people.”

But Biong defends the government, saying it is fighting the opposition, not one particular tribe.

“This is not an ethnic conflict between the Dinka, the president’s tribe, and the Nuers, Machar’s tribe, but a war between the government and the opposition,” he says. “The government is made of both the Nuers and the Dinkas. Some army generals are Nuers. Similarly, there are both Nuers and Dinkas in the rebel forces.”

Tut, a Nuer, was publishing The Independent newspaper and The South Sudan magazine when the war broke out. He and his family hid in the forest for four days before friends airlifted them to Kenya.

“We were lucky to survive,” he says. “I have lost many friends and colleagues in the war.”

Tut had to shut down his businesses in Juba. He now survives with support from friends. His family lives in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya’s North Eastern province.

Biong says he has lost business because of the war. He used to bring in about $6,000 a month leasing out space in a commercial building he owns in Juba. The building has been vacant since Biong’s tenants, mostly business people from Kenya and Uganda, fled the country.

“Peace is everything,” he says, looking pensive. “Without peace, you have nothing.”

After long, drawn-out mediation efforts by IGAD, to which South Sudan belongs, the people of South Sudan say they hope the war will soon end.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development drafted a power-sharing agreement that Kiir and armed group leader Machar had been expected to sign before July 7, but had not been signed by press time, when Kiir’s mandate was set to end before Parliament extended his term for three years, Biong says; the agreement had not been signed as of press time. Under the agreement, Kiir will retain the presidency and Machar will be reinstated as vice president.

Many South Sudanese nationals, however, call on both leaders to step down, making way for new leaders.

“They should resign and apologize for the killing of thousands of civilians,” Tut says.

Kuol agrees.

“It will be very hard for the two warring factions to work together again,” he says. “After signing the peace deal, they should resign and allow new leaders to take over.”

Kuol hopes one day to return to Abyei, his ancestral home.

“It may take time, but we’ll eventually go home,” he says.