When I first met Marilyn Lacey six years ago, she was filled with optimism. There was even a sense of relief in her voice. Sandra Serrano and Robert Tafoya, mutual Bakersfield friends, had gotten us together for dinner, because they wanted me to talk to the Catholic nun about her organization’s work with refugees.
After decades of civil war and government corruption, the people of South Sudan had just voted their independence, becoming the world’s newest nation. Finally, Lacey and many others, including Western leaders and those in the U.S., hoped the killing and plundering of these desperate African people would end.
Regrettably, it hasn’t worked out that way. As the creation of South Sudan neared its sixth anniversary last year, the fledgling country was embroiled in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Civil war had erupted, forcing millions of people to flee their homes. There are now 21 South Sudanese refugee camps along the border in northern Uganda, with Bidi Bidi being the world’s largest camp, holding 273,000 refugees — 80 percent of them women and children. Mercy Beyond Borders, Lacey’s organization, provides services to some of the camps.
Famine has brought more than half of the nation’s population — 6 million people — to the brink of starvation. Sharply divided ethnic conflicts are creating the likelihood of genocide.
In the midst of this chaos a year ago, I sat down for another dinner in Bakersfield with Lacey. Although worried and frustrated by the dire situation, the nun was not about to give up on the people of South Sudan, nor those in impoverished Haiti, where her nonprofit organization also works to educate and empower women.
“In South Sudan, especially, where girls are considered to be worth less than cows, and where the men are hopelessly divided by tribal enmities, it seems obvious that the only way forward toward peace is by educating the females, fostering friendships across tribal divisions, and training them for leadership and community service,” she told me.
Her determination and commitment was particularly evident in an email she sent to friends and supporters this month, after President Trump’s reported use of crude words to describe the very people and countries she and her organization serve.
“We are bound by one, common, humanity,” Lacey wrote. “We share one small planet. Our words and actions affect one another for good or for evil. We dare not be neutral bystanders when entire populations are being denigrated in such vulgar, dismissive ways that might — God help us — coalesce someday into discriminatory law or policies.
“I have spent the past 40 years working with refugees and immigrants. Just this past week, I was in rural northern Haiti, meeting with hard-working resilient women who live with real dignity despite tremendous adversity. Later this month, I will be in Africa, working with displaced women in the refugee camps along the South Sudan border,” Lacey wrote, insisting the women of Haiti and Africa deserve praise, not denigration, for working hard, handling incredible adversity with grace, and displaying unequaled compassion toward their neighbors.
Located in the eastern Horn of Africa, Sudan is bordered on the north by Libya and Egypt, the south by Uganda and Kenya, the east by Ethiopia, and the west by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. Until its people voted in 2011 to split the country in two, giving South Sudan its independence, it was the largest and most geographically diverse country in Africa.
But it has also been plagued by brutality. Sectional, cultural and political warring, as well as just plain greed, have kept its people impoverished and often fleeing for their lives. For decades, the world ignored conflicts that killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions of people from their homes.
In recent years, celebrities, such as actor George Clooney, have called attention to genocide occurring in Sudan, forcing the world to take notice. “Darfur” and the “Lost Boys of Sudan” are narratives associated with the cruel acts inflicted on helpless, innocent men, women and children.
“Outsiders have over-simplified the war as Muslim versus Christian, especially after the north vowed to impose Muslim sharia law throughout the south," Lacey wrote in her book, “The Flowing Toward Me.” "Much more is involved, of course, including egos willing to obliterate their fellow countrymen and women and children in exchange for the wealth that oil brings."
The violence in Sudan escalated during the 1973 oil crisis, after satellite imagery was introduced that identified rich oil deposits in southeastern Sudan. Permission was given to an oil company to conduct ground exploration, which led to the building of a pipeline. Oil profits have fueled the bloodshed ever since.
Invited to travel to Sudan in 1992 by Catholic Relief Services, Lacey said she expected to see devastation from aerial bombing, destruction of villages and displacement of populations to make way for the pipeline. But she was unprepared for the carnage. After her visit, the violence only intensified.
Every day, a photograph in Lacey’s Northern California office reminds her of the suffering in Sudan and why we all should care. In the photograph, a vulture is shown waiting on the ground behind an emaciated child. The child’s head is bowed downward, too heavy for his thin neck, and his spindly arms are unable to balance his starved torso in a sitting position. Its caption: “Southern Sudan.”
News photographer Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph. Two months later, at the age of 33, he committed suicide. He left behind a note that read in part: “I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy. … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”
Lacey said the photograph is “a reminder not only of the horror of war, but of the dreadful, inescapable truth that we are all complicit.”
Dianne Hardisty retired as The Californian’s editorial page editor. Reach her at Dhardisty123@gmail.com.