The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: south sudan

The Long Road Home

Of all our numerous undertakings, our work in Sudan over the last 15 years has stretched us the most. Something about attempting to function in what was then Africa’s largest country and in the continent’s longest running civil war helps you mature pretty quickly.

When we first journeyed to the region in order to fight slavery we were totally in over our heads – and we knew it. Moreover, we had CBC television and the London Free Press along with us for the duration and feeling a sense of responsibility for their protection when you’re trying to learn the situation yourself was a sobering exercise.

And yet it was life-altering. We had walked into history and we sensed it every minute. It had taken a long time for the world to wake up to the reality that was slavery in Sudan, but once it was “out there” Canadians reacted with alacrity and a far-ranging sense of compassion. Canadians are born for this kind of thing – not just because of our own history as the destination point for the Underground Railroad, but because Canada could boast of a long history in Africa and wonderful heritage of siding with the oppressed over lengthy periods of time.

That first journey was indeed remarkable – as were the umpteen follow-up trips to the region. We were cooperating not just with the southern Sudanese, but with the UN and other countries who were attempting to acquire data and fact-based evidence that slavery was not only a reality, but was in actuality a tool of war. Thanks to the London Police Department, who supplied us with fingerprint training and the tools to go along with it, we were able to provide that evidence in a way that proved conclusive. Moreover, Macleans magazine came with us twice, as did the London Free Press.

These were remarkable days that not only saw us enmeshed in the deep pains of human mortality but also the danger to our own safety. Yet despite all the worry of family and fellow citizens, their backing of our efforts was vibrant and consistent. This is the kind of community we live in and we were but extensions of their compassion and commitment to human justice.

We were there for the end of the war, the deconstruction of slavery, and the eventual peace that was to see south Sudan become the newest nation in the world just last year. Along the way we were able to free over 10,000 slaves, none of which were recaptured. We made thousands of friends, endured many failures, and ultimately shared in the Sudanese success. And, yes, first one, then three children ended up coming to Canada to live with us once their mother was shot attempting to escape slavery with her children in tow.

So many people ask us about those early years and it just seemed that the time was right to chronicle our efforts during a difficult time. And so we agreed that I would write a book if Jane would do the illustrations. What you’ll see in the video below is the final product. The book is available at Amazon.com here, but you can also get a copy from Jane and me if you’re in the London area.

The events recounted in the book are those of two average Canadians caught in exceptional circumstances. More important, we were backed by a community and a media that wanted the story told. In that telling, the world grew aware of a massive atrocity and their response brought the worst part of slavery to an end.

The entire thing was a human drama from beginning to end – just as the book recounts. Yet when we go back to Sudan every January we see these former slaves, now attending school, operating a micro-enterprise, enjoying the grandchildren, and yet still suffering deprivation. A few yet wear Canadian pins in their ears and the Canada flag flies proudly over the schools that have been constructed by the good people of Canada. Our biggest development challenge now is raising funds to build a secondary school for Darfur refugees. To see more of what we’re doing, check out www.casscanada.net.

The Long Road Home is a tale well worth the telling; perhaps you’ll find it worth reading. The cost of the book is next to nothing, but the blood lost in the telling and the many friends we lost along that journey make it priceless to us. This is just the kind of stuff Canada does, and a new nation has resulted that owes a tad of its new birth to the generosity of Canadians. We walked that path together and, indeed, it was a long road home.

For All Of It

This weekend we celebrate the birthdays of our twin girls Abuk and Achan. I just can’t let that day go by without thinking of another day, in another continent, celebrating another miracle.

We had touched down on the dirt airstrip in Malualkon, South Sudan. It was packed with people wanting to see the little girl. We had adopted Abuk four years earlier and had brought her back to this village from which she departed. Cheering erupted the moment she stepped through the door of the small plane.

I don’t quite remember too much after that, for there on the ground was a little girl playing in the dirt and preoccupied with something she was drawing. Suddenly she looked up directly into my eyes and my world shifted on its axis.

By accident I had stumbled upon Achan, Abuk’s identical twin sister, whom we had been told had been killed in a raid along with the mother and an older brother. The girls had been four months old at the time. Later that day a little boy was brought to us who happened to be Ater – the brother who had been caring for Achan since their mother was killed.

So long ago now (2005) and yet the sight of Achan’s eyes are seared into my brain, likely embedded there forever. I choke up now even thinking about it and you can’t blame me – or Jane for that matter. It was a moment of profound revelation and the ultimate recognition that we had been humbled by the greatness of life in the midst of countless deaths from civil war. We were parents suddenly aware we would never be as great as our children in that moment. They had survived and developed inner strength through hardship and loss.

Suddenly we went from parents of one to triple that in an instant. Over a year later we brought Achan and Ater to Canada to be with their sister they had once believed was in heaven. Well, they were right. Of all the countries they could have arrived in, they landed in a country mighty in spirit, majestic in nature, and meaningful in the way its people choose to carry out their lives.

How to you bring up children like this? The basics were all there – discipline, love, instruction, patience, joy, endurance, endless work that is only exceeded by infinite compassion. To this day they come home from school carrying sticks that they lay on the porch. Why? Because in those brutal years in Darfur they journeyed far and wide for firewood and they still instinctively gather the twigs even though they’re not required. To this day they beam with smiles and a joy that only comes from staring at death when you’re too young to understand it and embrace life in a way that is old before your time. To this day they play together, even with Ater being three years older, because they are a family baptized into a grand narrative that has become the brand new nation of South Sudan. To this day they pray for their “African Mommy” in heaven – aware that her bolt for freedom which ended in such tragic loss nevertheless propelled them into a chance at life. To this day they embrace Jane and I with such vigour, knowing that we scramble every day in our hearts and minds to live up to the honour granted to us of guiding miracles into maturity.

These three children, products of brutal war, are now byproducts of a gentle peace. They’ve come to the best country and by a fate that can only prompt my religious faith, they have latched on to a mother who is a match for their birth mother – proud, majestic in humility, magnificent in service, and joyful in a prolonged youth.

And me? How can I measure up to four such outstanding human beings? It’s simple; I can’t. But I don’t regret it. To be dwarfed by humanity in the form of these remarkable people is to learn humility – not by my failures, of which there are many, but by the miracle of abiding with such marvellous gifts that I neither deserve nor warrant.

The picture above is of Abuk (with the ball) holding Achan just two hours after they discovered one another. With little food over the years, Achan is all that much smaller. But those are the eyes that staggered my soul with their experience. To this day I am a man blessed by the ability to never lose the wonder of it all. In a few hours they turn 12. And in that same span of time I will have turned my face towards the world’s oppressed. After all, if I hadn’t chosen that path in life, I wouldn’t have discovered any member of this remarkable family. A lot of you understand what I’m saying because you love your kids just as much. It’s just that Achan, Abuk and Ater have survived so much and I want to guide them aright, and to learn from them what majestic souls really look like. Happy birthday girls and thank you, God – for all of it.

Click Here to Care

In the last 48 hours, my wife and I have field endless requests for guidance on the Kony 2012 phenomenon. We have worked in south Sudan for years, where Kony himself occasionally staged his operations, crossing the border into Uganda to launch his lethal raids. Thanks to the almost unprecedented success of the Internet video, the goal of its promoter – Invisible Children – has achieved success in turning Joseph Kony into a household name. But from that point on things become terribly blurred.

Invisible Children wants you to know that Kony is a mass murderer, rapist, and confirmed war criminal, and they want you to help stop him by donating to the organization so that they can advocate Western governments, primarily the Americans, to hunt Kony down, and also so that they can support government of Uganda militia troops to seek him out and bring him to justice. This is complex stuff – your donations dollars going to military operations – made all the more confounding by the group’s claim to protect children, including child soldiers, by removing Kony from the equation.

No sooner had the video circled the globe than criticisms arose over Invisible Children’s methods and claims. Responding to those arguments, the organization’s spokespersons requested that people not rush to judgement but examine the situation more in-depth. That has now been done extensively in the last 24 hours and the results haven’t been encouraging.

Initially we learned of the high administrative costs and generous salaries of the organization’s staff. Such levels of administration would never be accepted in other non-government organizations functioning around the world, but with little scrutiny on Invisible Children’s finances, its overhead has avoided notice. As the hours ensued and the video advanced in its momentous viewings across the globe, we learned that President Obama had already deployed 100 military advisors to help the Ugandan army locate Kony. There has also been an extensive international operation underway to locate, arrest, and convict Kony at the International Criminal Court. In other words, the international community has been on this case for a number of years.

It’s also important to know that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda for six years. For a time he was in south Sudan, but now the sense is that he is hiding out in the Central African Republic – far away from the Ugandan army’s ability to capture him. Also, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, while still creating some havoc, is a shell of its former self – perhaps comprising only a few hundred followers. His days of hell-raising and extensive bloodshed are largely in the past. Part of the reason for that is that he is a hunted criminal, pursued by the likes of Navy Seals and international investigators. His days of freewheeling are over. Yet the Kony 2012 video doesn’t leave anyone with that impression. Rather, it makes out that he still has a huge force and that children are being recruited in significant numbers into his purposes – a statement that doesn’t pass the smell test. To claim he presently has an army of 30,000 child soldiers is misleading. The film’s producer should have informed us that such a figure comprises the total number of child soldiers enlisted and abducted over a 30-year period. Most of those unfortunate youth are now older, out of the LRA, and badly in need of rehabilitation and development, not protection.

Look, I get where Invisible Children is coming from, but it’s video is already 5-6 years out of date – something it never tells us. Other NGOs in that region would die for that kind of circulation of their work; but then again, they would do their best not to play fast and loose with the facts. There’s a reason why these NGOs have stayed out of all the hubbub concerning the video – paying money to Ugandan government militias runs the huge risk of playing with the devil and only escalating the cycle of violence. That is only a practice that can end in ruin and experienced NGOs know it.

Perhaps the most important thing of all is that people retweeted the video because of the kids. Yet only about 30% of donations go towards actual programs for the youth themselves. The rest goes to militia donations, administration, communications, and advocacy. None of this is covered in the video.

It’s easy to see why the Kony 2012 video created such a stir. It’s about catching a monster, but ultimately it emotionally urged us to protect those kids. Well, most of those kids are now young adults, trying to survive in Uganda, and badly in need of development dollars for health, education, rehabilitation, and employment training. They are no longer caught within Kony’s web of intrigue and butchery. If we really wish to assist them, consider a group like Romeo Dallaire’s Child Soldier Initiative, War Child or Gulu Walk – all three Canadian organizations doing tremendous work for such young people. And there are other great organizations.

A report came out yesterday that the vast majority of viewers simply forwarded the video to others without making a donation. One click and they felt like they did something. And they did – the knowledge of Kony was surely helpful. But if it’s the damaged former child soldiers we wish to help, there are other options. Far more than clicking on a keyboard, they will require literally years of support and dedication. That’s the kind of compassion that will make a difference – it’s the only kind that ever did.

Tomorrow Comes

It was a remarkable evening, with some talented performers and choirs of youth that filled up the front of the venue. But in the end, the stars of the evening were the audience themselves. They had come to realize that, after 10 years of supporting Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan and the many projects being undertaken, the had been part of history being made.

Ten years ago none of them (me included) believed that slavery would end for southern Sudanese – it’s now gone. It was Africa’s longest running and most costly civil war, so how could they know peace would unfold in only a few years and yet it did – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005. A decade ago there wouldn’t have been one person in that room that would have possibly believed the people of south Sudan would achieve independence by a more gentle means – following a largely peaceful period of preparation, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation this past July.

So here’s to a great group of about 300 or so dedicated Canadians who chose to stick together for a decade and be a part of one of the most electric periods of history. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

On Camel Hair and Teaching

When I tweeted yesterday that Jane and I were on our way to share a class at the University of Toronto School of Public Policy with Michael Ignatieff, I was flooded with messages from folks feeling they wished they could have been a fly on the wall. Rightfully so. To witness him in a classroom in front of keen young minds is to gain an important perspective on why good teaching is important.

I wondered how he would be, having not seen him since the election in May. He was remarkably at ease with his students. There were some 30 of them, Master’s students, very intelligent and likely headed for the policy departments of governments throughout Canada. I asked one student how she was finding the class and her reply fit the mood of what I was seeing: “Look,” she said, “it’s Michael Ignatieff. I’m so lucky.” That pretty well summed it up.

He guided them adroitly through the nightmares of attempting to design policy in political states that were barely surviving. The Republic of South Sudan is one key example. As the world’s newest nation since last July, the challenges to its survival are numerous. The students themselves had researched many of the obstacles and had done their work as to what needed to be done.

Michael introduced the two of us to the class and began a practical dialogue concerning the possibilities both within and outside south Sudan of helping this young nation to succeed. He opened it up to his students and they fired away with clear, concise and educated queries. When the two hours had passed we came away with one key lesson which we all hope will endure: the success of effective policy in such places depends on the capacity of people like the southern Sudanese themselves to implement it – the stronger the people, the more effective the policy itself.

Students hung around afterward with more questions and then we were out on our way back to Michael and his wife Zsuzsanna’s condo and dinner. They took us through the winding pathways of the campus, talking about our hopes for a better world and Canada’s role in it. We stopped briefly to do a video, which you’ll see below.

Prior to dinner Jane and I talked about the privilege we had just shared. This was Michael Ignatieff – demonized by petty minds incapable of expansion; lionized by his peers and students around the world; and humanized by life’s lessons and his exposure to beleaguered people caught in some terrible ethnic conflicts around the world. Jane and I were honoured to share a class with a master teacher and to observe how effective education can stimulate students to make a difference in their world.

The dinner, also shared with a favourite journalist friend and her husband, we free flowing and full of ideas and concepts. As we left to drive back home to the kids in London, Zsuzsanna asked if we were going to be cold. She then asked if I’d like to have Michael’s camel hair overcoat you see in the video for the journey home. “I gave it no him years ago and he never like it from the beginning, so you take it.” We all laughed, and then we were off.

I will treasure that coat, much as I will my friendship with the two of them. But more than anything I’ll be thankful that I witnessed a man and his dedicated wife in the midst of keen young intelligence who moved easily among the young and who are venerated for what they have provided the teaching world. Those students loved the two of them … as do we. A remarkable day.

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