“Oh! I thought you were tall.” General Wiere Akoon said as he bowed toward me, laying his left cheek against my right one in the traditional South Sudanese greeting and patting my shoulder.
“I don’t remember you looking so sad.” I thought, but thankfully didn’t blurt out, as he sized me down.
Being the only woman in an African meeting, I stepped back as the men approached the table letting each man choose his seat first. To my surprise, the General took a side-chair, not the head. It wasn’t until everyone sat that James said, “No, General, you take the head.” He did.
Thus began my second meeting with the General who calls the shots in the war zone exploding all around Hope for South Sudan (HFSS). I’d asked James Lual Atak to invite General Wiere to spend the day with us so that we could make a formal introduction to our new indigenous director, Peter Sarafina, at HFSS. Last year, we prayed our way through many threats and accusations ranging from harboring rebels, to soldiers threatening to storm our compound or halting the passage of our supplies. At that time, James was wise enough to suggest we invite the General to see our compound for himself; we never expected he’d actually come to HFSS, but come he did.
Paul Otwari, General Wiere Akoon, Kimberly Smith Highland, James Lual Atak, Peter Sarafina, Akoon Wiere Akoon
James opened this second meeting with appropriate introductions, through which we quickly discovered many common connections. The men shared their stories of war, and James told of my runaway Donkey escapade many years ago, whereupon all the men laughed until they nearly cried. An unexpected air of comfortableness settled upon us, and then I remembered back to General Wiere’s affectionate touch with a three-year-old boy he saw at HFSS during our first meeting in February. The boy is Longiro Angelo; when General Wiere first saw him he stopped in his tracks, saying, “This is my driver’s boy!”
Last year, during one of the many intense battles and ambushes in South Sudan, Angelo’s mother was shot and killed with Angelo swaddled in her arms. His father, being General Wiere’s driver, could not care for him and so turned him over to HFSS. Many of our children are orphans of soldiers, either their fathers were killed in battle or are assigned in such a position where they cannot care for their children when the mothers are killed. The irony is that throughout this bloody civil war, our biggest threat against being able to protect these children has been leveled by government soldiers.
When General Wiere discovered Angelo among our flock of children, he knelt down and carefully checked Angelo’s back for scars from the battle, and then, lingering one hand atop the small boy’s shoulder, raised his gaze first to Romano, then James, and finally me. “I had heard there were children out here, but I never knew such a thing as this existed. I never believed someone would actually stay out here in the bush in the middle of war just to care for children. When James first told me a white woman was coming here to meet me, I thought, ‘She will never make it! The fighting is too tough; even our own people have fled to refugee camps.’ And, now, here you are—even with your arm in a sling and a broken collar bone. Such a thing has never happened before and our children have never had such a beautiful place as this. Please thank all your people. I promise you, nothing bad will happen here. I will protect these children.”
In war and politics, leaders promise a lot. I’m not sure if it was the sadness in his eyes, seeing his hand gently resting on Angelo’s tiny shoulder, or the miracle that he’d even taken the time to visit us, but something in that moment told me General Wiere meant what he said and intended to do all he could to keep his word.
“And that is why President al-Bashir limps even to this day!” James’ thundering voice jolted my attention back to the present, leaving my memory of General Wiere inspecting Angelo to where I sat across him at a table for my second meeting with complex man.
“I’m sorry; I missed that. Why does President al Bashir limp?” I asked.
“Because General Wiere shot him! There was a terrible battle back in 1988 in Mayom, Nuer. That is the Upper Nile. General Wiere was not a general at that time; he was a second lieutenant. He led his men straight into battle; he found al-Bashir under a tree and shot him. Bashir was not yet the president in that time. The battle was too fierce and Second Lieutenant Weire could not get all the way to Bashir before his men pulled him out of battle. They got him back to Khartoum where he had surgery, but he has suffered a serious limp all these many years since.”
Every man at the table congratulated General Wiere, heartily thanking him again for his courage under fire and good leadership. They all beamed with national pride and some kind of emotion that only a desperate people scrounging for some proof they are not fools for holding onto hope that perhaps the tide will somehow swing their way once again.
They all beamed, except one man.
General Wiere sat stock still. Shoulders slightly rounded. Head straight forward. Hands folded in front, placidly on the table. Blood-shot eyes meeting no ones.
My bones told me, “Here is a man who knows that there is great loss even if victory does come. Here is a man who remembers that for every act of kindness, service, and protection that he offers, he also orders or commits unthinkable horrors of war.” This dichotomy is the source of the meek sadness I had sensed but hadn’t been able to name each time I’d been with him. I think it is the same distant sadness I often felt from my father, a WWII veteran.
Knowing what I know about the corruption, murder of innocents, and government-sanctioned rape, empathy and personal identification with a South Sudanese general were not feelings I ever expected to experience. I found myself torn between wanting to press him to justify how he could be a part of this insane war and thanking him for remaining a part—on the ground, versus so many who live in mansions in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, or UK, killing people with words by issuing orders.
I finally found my way to asking what so many people ask me, “What is the hope for South Sudan? You had your chance when you won your independence in 2013, and in a year’s time, you’re doing to yourselves what had been done unto you for decades. How will this ever end, and what can outsiders do?”
Unfolding his hands, placing them firm and flat upon the table before him, he turned his eyes to meet mine. His answer undid me.
“Let us solve our own problems. Let the people of South Sudan settle their own war. Let our people take responsibility for ourselves. What I mean is that all of this started when Reik Machar wanted to steal the power. When he failed he went to the White People to get money. Of course, many promises were made for political alliances and oil. So White People gave him the money to fight. Now, you see, anytime someone within either side becomes angry and wants the power for themselves, they go to other White People and get money for their own group. Before anyone knows it, we are not One South Sudan, we are hundreds of factions and splinter groups all fighting for power within—and the White People’s money from without. White People accuse us of tribalism but the truth is our war has nothing to do with tribalism; it is all about power, greed, and the White People’s money. If you want to help us, leave us alone to solve our problems ourselves. If the money dries up, the true leaders will rise to the surface. If they want to give money, it should only be to care for our women and children while we sort this out. Please do that. Please tell them to help our children but stop funding our war.”
Now came my time to thank General Wiere. I’ve sat with scores of military, chiefs, elders, doctors, nurses, and clergy in South Sudan. I’ve had well-dressed chiefs ask me for new shoes while surrounded by naked orphans. I’ve had medical staff walk out during epidemics because we had no funds to increase their pay. I’ve had soldiers demand personal payment to help a rape survivor be transported to a hospital. I’ve had governors telling us they won’t let us in unless we buy them satellite phones. I’ve never had a General tell me to ask people to stop funding war, and only help the children.
I can’t be certain what all went into the making of this man, General Wiere. What I do know is that he spoke much hard-hitting truth that cost him something—and could cost him more. Yet, he asked nothing for himself.
While he did not speak of God; he spoke of godliness: “Stop supporting our killing machine of civil war and do help the widows and orphans.” While he named “White People” as the perpetuators of this problem he refers to all outsiders of voice and power. This includes the U.S. who is well known for supporting a coup in a small but politically strategic country one year, and the very next naming the same leader as evil. It also includes Russia and China in their arms-for-oil brokering—bedding with anyone regardless of the innocent bloodshed they cause for the precious black ooze we rape the earth to obtain. Most hauntingly of all, it includes you and me if we remain stupid or silent so that we might continue to enjoy the spoils of war by not speaking out against our government’s role in the wars of our world.
Today, let us resolve to speak out against the funding of foreign wars for our own profit of oil, political alliances, and the weapon industry, while at the same time, make a personal commitment to build up sustainable men and women of peace by giving today’s orphans of war hope and a new worldview firmly grounded in Love.
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