Painting of an SPLA Soldier by Abul Oyay
In commemoration of May 16th, South Sudan’s SPLA Day, I usually reflect on what I believe is the nation’s mood at that moment. This year, I would like to reflect on the plight of the forgotten heroic SPLA soldiers.
It is no secret that most families in South Sudan lost scores of family and community members to the liberation struggle. To each family, these soldiers are not mere statistics. They are their pride, hopes shattered, livelihoods lost, dreams curtailed, and longed-for embraces. Their eyes look upon us from the beyond, hauntingly or endearingly. Their spirits always hover in the lives of those left behind. My immediate family is no different. Our people have borne the burdens of liberation gracefully.
I have worked as a civil servant for close to a decade and a half now. For at least five of those years, I worked in Juba. During that time, I have had the privilege to interact with some of our forgotten heroes. Usually, they come seeking to meet their former comrades, who are now highly placed government officials. Most often, these officials’ current fortunes can not surpass the glorious contributions of their now dejected comrades in the struggle. Some of these officials receive these comrades, waylayed to the fringes of power, with humility and grace. Others shun them altogether, while others give them empty promises and praise.
These officers’ feats and heroic acts, I came to find, were legendary, told, and retold. Some more “fortunate” former officers found accommodation here and there. Yet, they still suffered countless humiliations, especially those caused by a lack of adequate recognition. Sadly, they are only adequately revered in death.
One fortunate instance led me to know the story of an Ethiopian soldier assigned to the SPLA, who, since the fall of Mangisto, had been cut off entirely from his family. Fearful of persecution by his government and presumed dead by all, he has been altogether stateless. A few years ago, he heard of his mother’s deteriorating health and subsequent death, his only wish being able to bury her and meet his wife and children after decades of absence. He could not travel and sought South Sudanese travel documents and possible naturalization. He came to our office to seek the support of a highly placed former comrade, asking him to add his weight to the process already started by his superiors in Bilpham.
I hope and believe that the concerned authorities addressed his issue. And that he was able to reunite with his family in Ethiopia or meet them in South Sudan or a neighboring country. Such an unsung hero who made incredible sacrifices for a people and a cause not his own must be honored.
Another instance was that of a son of a legendary SPLA Fanan who came knocking on the doors of his father’s former comrades seeking support for his educational pursuits. Most of his supplications fell on deaf ears. Perhaps his father’s former comrades are drowned in the sheer number of such requests. Past and current soldiers usually flood the offices looking for genuine and, at times, made-up needs. However, the fact remains that there should be an operationalized policy to proactively deal with the issues and needs of veterans and the armed forces and their families.
Such a policy would provide opportunities for gaining skills and or education and capital for building self-sufficiency through market/business activities. The government should provide free access to education to the highest level possible for at least the children of the members of the armed forces. The medical needs of soldiers and their families should also be provided free of charge.
Perhaps this policy sounds ideal, but we have the means to make it a reality, should we muster the requisite political will. It may well be that some parts of what I am saying already exists in paper. However, that we are not meeting the basic needs of our armed forces is unfathomable. Leave alone their meager salaries and inequity in promotions.
Many of our heroes languish in the grips of post-traumatic stress disorder. Others live in abject poverty. While others live in cognitive dissonance, unable to reconcile their current realities with their former glories. Many have suffered unimaginable humiliation.
At times I wonder if ever they regret a single day, a limb, or a pint of blood they have given for this country. A part of me says they would consider the mere thought of regret the highest form of treason and betrayal to their fallen comrades and fellow countrymen and women. They would consider regretting a betrayal to every inch of the precious homeland and every grain of the soil made up of our ancestral remains. So we, their beneficiaries, must dare not regret!
As a country with a fierce history of liberation struggles, we must do better for our soldiers and their families, and if they pay the ultimate price for their widows and orphans. We must remember their names, celebrate their contributions, and act in reverence of their precious sacrifices in all that we do. Taking care of them should never be considered an act of charity. It is a debt our nation must pay. It is the noblest responsibility. It is a mark of sovereignty, for our statehood stands on the shoulders of past soldiers. Its continuity depends on the current and future soldiers’ strength, loyalty, and commitment.
Happy May 16th, beloved South Sudan!