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South Sudan conflicts haven’t crossed to Minnesota

Published 10:08am Thursday, December 26, 2013

By Mark Brunswick

Star Tribune

As South Sudan, the world’s newest country, teeters on the brink of civil war, members of the two feuding tribes — the Nuer and the Dinka — living in Minnesota are working to ensure that the ethnic conflicts of their homeland do not escalate here.

Minnesota is home to about 2,000 members of the Nuer tribe and a smaller number of Dinka. On Friday, Minnesota’s Nuer community plans a rally to spotlight the potential for international calamity brewing in their country and to condemn the violence they say is being perpetrated against them.

Since violence began in South Sudan on Dec. 15, the United Nations estimates that nearly 1,000 people have been killed and 45,000 displaced in clashes between the Nuer and Dinka, fueled by political rivalries that have stoked long-standing ethnic divisions.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to authorize 5,500 additional troops and more than 400 police officers to bolster its mission in South Sudan to protect civilians. The escalating violence has given rise to fears of genocide similar to Rwanda, the African nation where 800,000 people were slaughtered in 1994.

Even as the conflict escalates far away, members of both tribes interact frequently here in Minnesota, and both say there is little tension between them. Both communities are focused on making sure family members there are secure, particularly in getting relatives out of restive Juba, the capital.

In Austin, Sudanese residents are just as frantic. Mathiang Akoi spent much of his time last weekend getting in touch with family members. As Akoi spoke with his sister, who was in Juba last Sunday, he said he heard gunfire in the background.

The conflict nearly caused flared tempers where Akoi works in Austin. He first heard from a coworker about bickering among South Sudanese in Iowa. After that, Akoi said, Nuer coworkers wouldn’t speak to him about the events in South Sudan. Akoi overheard a Nuer man, speaking in his native dialect, and thinks he heard worse.

“They were supporting war,” he said.

Akoi, a deeply faithful Christian who leads an Austin congregation of Dinka people, prayed for tensions to settle and planned to speak with management at work about any potential conflicts. He said employers will need to know about the situation, as some South Sudanese may need to leave to be with family, attend funerals and grieve.

Augustine Ting Mayai, a member of the Dinka tribe and a policy analyst for a South Sudan research organization, was in the United States for school and was scheduled to return Dec. 17. The violence has delayed his departure. An uncle was killed in recent fighting. But he says he has seen little evidence of those tensions in U.S. South Sudanese communities. His grandmother was Nuer, while his parents are Dinka.

“The animosities and the conflicts between the two tribes tend to be exaggerated,” Mayai said. “This situation here is more political, and it has to do with political leaders. There is no tension here in the U.S., that I know of. We have always interacted peacefully.”

Several Nuer and Dinka leaders, in fact, plan on speaking out together publicly in the United States in the coming days to call for hostilities to be suspended. The local Nuer community rally is planned for 1 p.m. Friday at the State Capitol.

While Iowa and Nebraska are home to larger South Sudanese communities than Minnesota’s, there are powerful connections here.

Backy Machar, the wife of Vice President Riek Machar, lives in Fridley, and Machar has been a frequent visitor to Minnesota over the years. Tensions have been high in South Sudan since July, when the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, dismissed Machar and the entire cabinet. The move inflamed tensions between Kiir’s Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer community.

Much like Minnesota’s larger Somali population, many in Minnesota’s South Sudanese community came here as a result of civil war, which raged in Sudan from the mid-1980s to around 2005. Large groups began returning within the last two years with South Sudan’s emergence as an independent nation in the summer of 2011.

New South Sudanese in Minnesota await word not only on the fate of relatives but on the future of their new country.

“We wanted to go and help build the nation,” said Gondar Timothy Tutlam, a Nuer community activist who returned to Minnesota from South Sudan last year. “Now they are all locked up in a U.N. compound and some are running in the bushes.”

— Distributed by MCT Information Services


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