South Sudan, the world's youngest country, marks its fourth annversary of independence on 9 July while struggling to end a conflict which has cost thousands of lives and displaced millions of its citizens. David Nyuol Vincent, one of South Sudan's 'Lost Boys' who has become an ambassador for peace in the midst of this ongoing conflict, reflects on one step in response to the crisis.
I have asked myself of late what is forgiveness? And if I say ‘sorry’ after I have wronged you, would that be enough?
A couple of facts to begin with – not all mistakes are equal. There are some that ‘sorry’ can easily heal. If I step on your foot and I say ‘sorry’, that probably would be enough, right? But are there some wrongs that ‘sorry’ can’t resolve? For instance, if I kill your brother and I say ‘sorry’, would you forgive me just because I said ‘sorry’? Maybe yes or maybe no. It is my understanding that the offended and the offender have to go through a process. It can take days or even years.
Let’s explore this in an even bigger context with what is happening in South Sudan, and all its predicaments. I do agree that as a nation, we must first heal. I’m one of the people who goes around preaching forgiveness. But what I haven’t figured out is how to go about it and make it happen. I know a couple of friends who lost their close relatives in the December 2013 crisis. It took me a while to call or write to them. I felt ashamed! All along I was wondering whether saying ’sorry’ would be enough. Of course I didn’t pull the trigger and kill anyone, but because I am from one of the ethnicities accused of having perpetrated this senseless war, I had to think twice. It is not because I was afraid, but rather I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Would anything I say make things worse? I also don’t want to downplay this – this is real and serious and I thought they needed time to grieve. A lot of people were hurt badly. I had the opportunity to witness this in Juba. I also escaped narrowly too. Eventually I gathered some courage and I met these friends and all I said to them was: ‘I am sorry.’ My interaction with these friends enabled me to see things differently; I heard the firsthand account of how their relatives were slain in cold blood. These gentlemen challenged the person I am today. I’m not sure what I would have done if I was in their shoes. Nevertheless, they taught me one thing: that with a genuine apology, the magnitude of what happened doesn’t matter. People actually accept genuine apologies. I regretted not doing it sooner.
The truth is we’ve done enough damage to each other and there are unspeakable atrocities continuing to take place. Instead we’re making this worse – people continue to die and this means more grief and more people who are hurt and who will seek revenge. Of course the only way to stop this is with a complete ceasefire followed by peace. Well, this has been tried, but it remained only on paper.
We are all seeking answers – funnily enough whilst doing this, some of us don’t see ourselves as part of the solution or even part of the problem. As an ordinary citizen I look up to our leaders for answers. Of course that’s the very reason why we voted them to lead us, isn’t it? It is at a time like this that I expect my leader to be that unexceptional human being and make sound decisions that will bring an end to the suffering of the people. It is as simple as that. Well I must be so naive to think it is that simple, otherwise it wouldn’t take us this long to reach a peaceful solution to this problem.
Do you see where I am heading with this? If not, please keep reading. When Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, first he and his cohorts went through a process of dialogue. At the end he had to do what was best for ordinary South Africans. Yes, 27 years in prison! He didn’t for a second think of himself. Well, I don’t expect the same to happen in South Sudan but one thing is for sure: Mandela wasn’t a saint, he was just an ordinary person who seized the opportunity given and did the right thing for his people. I believe we have our own Mandelas in South Sudan. I have huge respect for all our leaders both in the government and in the opposition. I applaud their efforts, but they are either too slow or they are not serious or perhaps they are not seeing the reality – the suffering of the people.
In June 2014, I and some colleagues had an opportunity to meet with Dr Riek Machar in Nairobi. At the time, the December 2013 conflict was still fresh. The night before I went to meet him, I honestly didn’t sleep. I was going through in my mind what I would say to him over and over – I must have rehearsed what I intended to say a thousand times. The actual day for the meeting came. We went to his hotel, and there were so many people there. My heart started to beat fast and I was sweating at the same time. Well, when he saw us he rose from his chair, called out our names and gave each one of us a big hug and welcomed us to sit. We all took turns and poured out our hearts and he sat there and listened. When it was my turn, all that I had planned to say disappeared completely. I went blank for a second. Then the only sentence that came to my mind was: ‘Sir, can you be a coward, have the courage and lead South Sudan on a journey to repent?’ I’m sure I said other things but I didn’t realise that I was actually crying. I wept like never before. I didn’t say anything after that – I was too emotional. After our meeting he said, ‘David, peace will come to South Sudan eventually. We’re working on it.’ And again he hugged me.
The reason I asked Dr Machar to be a coward is this: correct me if am wrong, but I grew up knowing that if I had an altercation with a friend and I was the first to say ‘sorry’, it meant I was a coward. So I grew up knowing saying ‘sorry’ meant cowardice. With that knowledge, I knew if I just asked him to say sorry to the nation and he thought the way I did, it would be impossible and a big ask. So I politely asked him to be a coward. This is me thinking like this and I am sure there are people out there who share the same mindset I do. If this is true and there are people out there with such mentality, then it will be tough for the South Sudanese to say sorry to each other. Tough, but not impossible.
In Australia, thousands of people crossed the country’s largest bridge and said ‘sorry’ for the inhumane things that were done to the Stolen Generations. Mind you, those who participated in that rally were not actually those who inflicted that suffering upon the first Australians. Believe it or not, that action carried out by masses of people paved the way for a genuine roadmap for healing. Is it possible for South Sudan to do the same? Do we have any Mandela of our own out there? As a nation, can we genuinely begin the process of healing by saying ‘sorry’ to each other?
Surely I think we can – so why not? I know I may not rally people to cross Juba Bridge to say ‘sorry’, but I can continue saying ‘sorry’ to friends I know have lost relatives. Well, it has to begin somewhere.
So I would like to take this opportunity to say ‘sorry’. Sorry for all the pain you’ve endured. Sorry for your innocent loved ones who were taken away. Sorry for driving you out of your own country. Sorry for all the difficulties you continue to face. For all that, I am sincerely sorry!
David Nyuol Vincent has worked on a number of peace and reconciliation initiatives, both in South Sudan and Australia, aimed at laying the foundations of trust for sustainable development.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.