The unusual email arrived a little before bedtime, so I didn’t respond until the next morning, though I immediately recognized its remarkable sender.
Jacob Mach, an Atlantan who is one the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, had recently been profiled in a lengthy New York Times Magazine story. He was pictured on the magazine’s cover, and the story told of his efforts to become an Atlanta police officer. It has established him as a minor celebrity.
In his email, Mach invited me to join him and other South Sudanese community members at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Stone Mountain to talk about “the deteriorating ethnic conflict in South Sudan.”
Located in a troubled area of Africa, South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It gained its independence in 2011 after more than 20 years of brutal civil war with its neighbor to the north, Sudan. Now there are fears that it may be descending into its own civil war.
Fighting has broken out between the government and rebels, killing 1,000 and displacing nearly 200,000 people, according to some reports. Half a world away, Mach and his friends in Atlanta’s South Sudanese community agonize as the situation worsens.
After exchanging a few emails, Mach and I agreed to a Sunday evening when he and his fellow Lost Boys could gather.
He met me in the church parking lot on cold, damp evening and escorted me into the dimly lit sanctuary. He introduced me to Joseph Majak, secretary of the South Sudanese Community of Atlanta organization.
They invited me to sit in a chair in front of the church as about two dozen men settled into the pews.
The mood was solemn and formal. Majak thanked me for coming, and told me that one of the community members would read a statement, and then several others would like to speak.
“We, the South Sudanese community of Georgia, are troubled by the political unrest in our nation,” the statement began.
After the reading of the statement, several men raised their hands to indicate they wished to speak.
For the next two and a half hours, when Majak called on them, each would stand, introduce himself, spell his name and thank me for joining them. And then they would talk about their concerns, worries and shame about events in their homeland.
Mach was among the first to rise.
He emphasized that most of those present are American citizens. The Lost Boys were displaced during the country’s civil war — either orphaned or separated from their families — and many were brought to the United States.
“We love this country dearly,” Mach said. It would be become clear through the evening that they value the peace and prosperity of the United States, and they can see great possibilities for South Sudan.
“What is happening now is shocking. The people dying are innocent civilians,” Mach said.
Many of those who spoke have family and friends in South Sudan. Some know Lost Boys who returned to the country to help build it after its independence.
“Our dads are there, our moms,” said Achiek Ayol.
Another man, Abraham Ater, described a phone call he got from a cousin in South Sudan that morning. His cousin, using the last bit of battery power in his cell phone, told him of how he’d had to flee his home and cross a dangerous river to escape the violence. Ater said his cousin has no access to electricity to recharge the phone, so he doesn’t know when he’ll hear from him again — or if he’s safe.
Peter Malou said his uncle called him that day. To tell him his cousin was dead.
The men spoke in broken English in an echoing church, making them hard to understand at times.
But the themes were consistent. Concern about loved ones. Hope that the United States and other nations would step in to stem the violence. Disappointment that South Sudanese leaders were turning on each other. Despair that the hope of a new nation was being lost.
As an American and a journalist, I marveled at their spirit and their hope. These men had endured unspeakable tragedy, yet comported themselves with dignity and grace.
They were not speaking of some distant country reported upon deep in the pages of the newspaper. They were talking about their home, and how their dreams for it — and those they left behind — were being dashed. But they continue to believe the world can be a better place, and that their adopted country can be a force for good.
Awino Gam spoke to both: the pain and the hope. “I feel shame for what is going on in our country,” he said . Still, he added, “if America brought peace to Bosnia, it can do it in South Sudan.”
These men believe that situation in South Sudan is worse than the world knows, and they are skeptical of the published death toll, believing the reality to be much higher. They know that media have a difficult time reporting in South Sudan. So they also monitor Facebook and Twitter, getting fist-hand reports from people they know.
And all the time, they hope the violence stops, that their country’s leaders can learn to operate in a democracy as they see in the United States.
But they fear the worst.
“I grew up in war, and I’m going to get old in war,” said Jacob Alier, as others nodded in agreement.
“Americans need to pay attention,” Mach said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.