Yar Kang and a busload of fellow South Sudanese exiles traveled from Sioux Falls to Omaha to vote in a 2011 referendum that gave their homeland independence from Sudan. She danced the night of its overwhelming passage. She believed the violence that killed her brother and racked her country for years was finally over.
But a fresh outburst of fighting back home finds Kang, who now lives in the Twin Cities, mourning the promise of that hopeful moment. For the mother of two and other Twin Cities natives of the world’s youngest country, anxious news from home marred the fifth anniversary of independence.
“People in South Sudan have suffered enough,” she said. “Now, it’s like another nightmare.”
But amid a fragile cease-fire, Kang and others cling to hopes their country can rise above the infighting that has stymied its development.
More than 2,000 South Sudanese live in Minnesota, mostly in the southern part of the state, community leaders estimate. In the aftermath of independence, local members of the country’s main Dinka and Nuer tribes united in their excitement to break free of Sudan’s brutal grip.
As political factions back home jockeyed for power and tribal animosities flared in 2013, they tried to stick together, says community leader Gondar Timothy Tutlam.
More recently, he says, the two groups in Minnesota have kept their distance: Last year, they celebrated independence separately.
On the eve of this year’s independence anniversary, fighting broke out in the capital Juba between loyalists of the country’s president, who is Dinka, and its vice president, who is Nuer. The violence claimed hundreds of lives and threatened a troubled power-sharing agreement.
For Kang, the renewed unrest brought tears and anger. Back in 2002, she was among a group of refugees — so-called Lost Boys and Girls — who attended President George W. Bush’s signing of the Sudan Peace Act, which paved the way for the independence vote more than a decade later.
“I see South Sudan as one country,” said Kang, a single mom and former model who works at a big-box store. “It’s not for the Dinka or the Nuer but for all South Sudanese.”
Shu Shu Kuany, a school district aide in New Hope, says she is weary of the cycle of political reprisals — and a sense that the world looks away.
“This situation is really frustrating and really stressful,” said Kuany, who like Kang is Dinka. “It’s always fight, fight, fight.”
Kang hopes to organize a Twin Cities prayer vigil for the Juba victims. Meanwhile, Tutlam, the head of the South Sudanese American Association of Minnesota, is planning a Monday demonstration in downtown Mankato. He and other Nuer have contacted members of the state’s congressional delegation, calling for the U.S. government to intervene in South Sudan.
Two of Tutlam’s cousins died in the fighting last week. He says he hopes the country’s expatriate community can set the pace for leaving tribal divisions behind.
“This problem is thousands of miles away from us,” he said. “We live here in America now.”
Kang says her children, born and raised in the United States, don’t understand the tribal animosities. She had hoped to take them to visit South Sudan for the first time this year.
“Our children don’t know Dinka and Nuer; they know South Sudanese,” she said. “If we put the hate in our kids’ hearts, there won’t be a South Sudan.”