Centering orality: Exploring gendered wartime violence with South Sudanese women elders

By: Sara Maher, PhD student at Monash University.

Sara researches the impact of mass abduction and enslavement of South Sudanese borderlands women, during the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005). This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June. 

The precursor to my PhD research was an oral history project with South Sudanese Women elders. The Anyikool Project collected over thirty hours of life stories and those recordings have now become part of the oral archive of the State Library of Victoria, (Melbourne, Australia). The archive, in which women are vastly unrepresented, now includes African Australian women for the first time. The interviews will soon be made available online.

A knowledge of the recent history of South Sudan helps to contextualise these stories but this is not essential. All the interviews follow the same loose structure but vary greatly in content. The full spectrum of the class system is represented, from royal family to peasant farmers. About half of the participants had received some education, three had tertiary degrees. The women had been, in their former lives, farmers and teachers and nurses; a politician, a soldier, a businesswoman and a development worker. Individually, the interviews are nuanced portraits, covering a wide range of experience, including migration to Australia. As a collection, the thirty plus hours bring to life the cultural diversity and the conflicts that are synonymous with southern Sudan in the mid to late 20th century.

AwiliOpirOkach, Anyuak.: “… no medicine, no food, just horror everywhere”

Photo: S. Maher

Photo: S. Maher

Like South Sudan itself, the South Sudanese diaspora in Australia is extraordinarily diverse; culturally, linguistically, socially and economically. They constitute Australia’s largest minority community—of a refugee background—roughly twenty-thousand of whom reside in Victoria. Participants in the Anyikool Project represented seven different ethnic groups; Kuku, Bari, Anyuak, Chollo, Nuer, Dinka and Acholi. Multiple sub-groups exist within these ethnic groups, but all participants, other than Bari, originate from borderlands—the Acholi and Kuku with Uganda, the Anyuak with Ethiopia, Chollo, Dinka and Nuer on the northern border with Sudan. Women elders are a small percentage of the South Sudanese Australian diaspora and are rarely heard beyond their community for reasons of health and age, language barriers and isolation, yet they maintain the oral traditions of their cultures. Their stories are compelling and evocative, conveying unique accounts of a period in their country’s history that includes the introduction of missionary run Western-style education, the end of Colonialsim, the first civil war (1956-1972) as well as an array of cultural practices including marriage, food production and family life.

Hannah NyabielPonam, Nuer:  “…life was always on the running”

Hannah_NyabielPonam_Nuer

Photo: S. Maher

Powerful and often haunting accounts of the second civil war, (1983-2005) provide new knowledge and understandings of the gendered violence these women suffered during that long war. Raids on their homes by government-backed militias, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), forced vast numbers into destitution and impoverishment, internal displacement and to cross borders into neighbouring countries as refugees. Famine, disease, enslavement and genocidal violence killed over two million people and displaced more than four million.

Throughout the twenty-one years of conflict there were uncountable incidents of gendered violence.  Stories of the war vary in perspective due to tribal and political affiliations but all of the women’s accounts embody survival in the face of extreme adversity. Women and children were targeted by militias and the SAF who avoided conflict with the rebel army, Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), and instead attacked unprotected villages with the express purpose of destroying families and livelihoods. Communities on the northern border between the Arab north and the African south were especially hard hit. The border is historically porous, contested and hostile. For centuries African southerners have been abducted into slavery and trafficked across this border, a practice that had slowed by the end of British colonialism in the mid-1950s but remerged during the war.  It has been claimed that between 1983 and 2002, up to 200,000, mainly women and children, were abducted and trafficked into rural and urban slavery in northern cities and neighbouring countries. It is impossible to know how many remain enslaved. Such was the prevalence of slave traiding almost all Anyikool Project participants, without prompting, referred to or spoke of it directly. During one interview, the interpreter interjected and described their experience of being taken as a child during a raid and forced into slavery on a farm in the north until escaping months later.

Sudan’s wartime borders were often natural barriers, changeable, unpredictable, some guarded, others not. The Kirr River in the province of the Bahr el-Ghazal separated southern Sudan from the north. The Gilo River in the Gambela district of Ethiopia was the border with Sudan. Thousands of women and children fleeing violence had no choice but to cross these rivers, made dangerous by deep, fast water, armed attacks and wild animals. Rarely did the crossing of these rivers lead to safety.

NayanutManyangArop, Dinka:  “….they kill the men and take women and girls.”

Photo: S.Maher

Photo: S.Maher

Those who travelled north did so believing falsely that they might find some protection in the so-called peace camps and shanty’s of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. But first they had to safely cross the Kirr and make the long trek through Baggara territory with the risk of being killed, abducted or raped by their militia. The alternative was to move east into Ethiopia via the Gilo River, another long, dangerous trek that could take months. Three refugee camps were created in Ethiopia from the mid-1980s; Dimma, Pinyudo and Itang. Of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who filled those camps, approximately 27 thousand were unaccompanied and orphaned children—a group that became known as the Lost Boys.

MagretNyapurMamur, Chollo: “….we were never safe”

When the Mengistu government fell in 1991, those refugees were forced out of the camps back across the Gilo River by Ethiopian militias. A woman gave birth the night before the camp was attacked and put the newborn in a bucket, the bucket on her head and walked to the Gilo river with her two other small children. At the river she wove reeds into a basket, put the children in it and crossed safely. A group of women pulled their children across in a fishing net at low tide. But many did not survive. Estimates of the number of fatalities at the Gilo River range from two to nine thousand. In most case they were children, drowned, eaten by crocodiles or killed by militias.

Photo: S. Maher

Photo: S. Maher

The women conveyed these stories in a range of ways, including urgency, sadness and nonchalance. One woman showed signs of traumatic distress and accepted a referral to a trauma agency. On the whole it seems that these women want to speak about that time. They remain silent only until they are asked. Being heard means their experience is acknowledged. And that is one of the purposes of the doctoral research the Anyikool Project led to. The other is to address the impact of slavery ten years after the war ended; to address social and cultural changes caused by the mass scale abductions. Questions are few in number and non-prescriptive, designed to encourage the orality of the participants. Fieldwork in Australia will begin in the coming weeks. Fieldwork in South Sudan will be conducted later this year. Despite a new life in a new country, South Sudanese Australians remain intensely connected to their homeland. While South Sudan achieved independence in 2011, the country has not found stability or peace. A third civil war erupted in December 2013. Memories of the past had always been fresh and alive before this, but the latest conflict has torn open old wounds. All attempts to end the current conflict have failed, adding to the already profound sense of loss and injustice that already haunted the country and its Diasporas.

The women elders of South Sudan have much to offer in terms of discourses on wartime gendered violence, on trafficking and slavery and border crossings; discourses that have historically excluded women’s stories. By engaging with indigenous knowledge, social science researchers can tap a vast wealth of experience and knowing. Methodologies that center around orality can de-colonise knowledge production and lead researchers into largely unexplored territory.

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Not racist, just resentful

By: Ben Gidley, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher

Brick Floor or wall background and textureIn continental Europe, governments, civil society and academics are increasingly likely to repeat the mantra that integration is “a two-way process” involving both migrants and receiving society. All too often, though, governments place the emphasis on only one point side of the equation: on the duty of migrants to fit in. Similarly, integration scholars relentless scrutinise migrant and minority communities. The Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe programme wanted to address the other side of the coin: what about ordinary members of majority populations, those amongst whom migrants are enjoined to fit in? In particular, what about marginalised members of majority populations – those who might feel dislocated or left behind by the processes of change that migration has come to stand for?

This group – conventionally categorised as “the white working class” – is a constituency often spoken for in the migration debate. In an early COMPAS Breakfast Briefing, Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor describe this as the discourse of the “beleaguered natives”. British politics has since provided no shortage of illustrations of this discourse. In 2011, David Cameron, talking about “a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods” created by migration, invoked the image of “the chat down the pub” to signal which kinds of neighbourhoods he meant. In 2012, David Goodhart wrote of “certain places, like the working class suburbs of south London… where the liberal tolerance of metropolitan Britain was not embraced”. In 2014, immigration minister James Brokenshire claimed that “a wealthy metropolitan elite” of “middle class” households have benefited from immigration while “ordinary, hard-working people” have suffered. In April, Dulwich College-educated former banker Nigel Farage claimed that UKIP “represent[s] the interests of working people… We are speaking for these people. They have got nobody else to speak for them.”

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Book Review: The Securitization of Migration and Refugee Women

By: Angelo Tramountanis, Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research (EKKE) and Phd Candidate at the Panteion University of Athens, Greece.

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

book review coverIn The Securitization of Migration and Refugee Women, Alison Gerard (Routledge, 2014) discusses existing conflicts between the responsibility of a state to protect refugee populations and the securitization of migration. She argues that, in essence, these two notions seem to be mutually exclusive. States and supranational organizations such as the European Union, use the tools provided by the securitization of migration in order to curb the rights that, in other circumstances, they would be obliged to provide to individuals seeking humanitarian protection. As Jef Huysmans argues, through the process of European integration, the securitization of migration is evident in three major themes: internal security, cultural identity, and the crisis of the welfare system. Following this typology, Gerard uncovers the ways in which the securitization of migration affects the choices, lives, and strategies of those who travel to Europe in order to seek protection. She does so by focusing on the specific case of Somali women arriving in Malta.

The securitization of migration, refugee protection, gender, and irregular immigration are the key parameters through which the main research question of this book is formulated: ‘What is the impact of the securitization of migration on women’s experience across the four key stages of migration―exit, transit, arrival and onward migration’ (p. 3). In order to answer this question, Gerard has organized her work in eight chapters. In the first, she describes the current irregular migration trends, discusses the methodology she employed for her research, and gives a brief migration profile of Malta. The second and third chapters provide the conceptual framework and structural analysis of the two regimes in conflict: the securitization of migration and refugee protection. The following four chapters examine the empirical data of the impact of securitization on the experiences of migrants during the four key stages of the migration process. The last chapter returns to the key tensions and research questions, and attempts to identify the pathways necessary in order to transcend these tensions.

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What can our views on the EU reveal about our opinions on immigration?

By: Yvonni Markaki, Migration Observatory Research Officer

In this week’s COMPAS Blog I draw on my own research and the European Social Survey to discuss how our evaluations of the impacts of immigration on the UK’s economy, culture, and quality of life relate to our views on European integration and the European Parliament.

International migration to the UK is not a novel political debate. A wide range of opinion polls over the past four decades have consistently shown that immigration tends to be an unpopular political issue.  However, the EU expansions after 2004 have arguably triggered a somewhat different debate about the role of the European Union in the UK’s ability to call the shots on population movement and economic policies. The 2008 economic crisis further generated a great deal of attention to the issue of resource scarcity and the UK’s ability to accommodate a growing immigrant population in the face of cuts to public investment and services.

Most surveys of attitudes towards immigration find that the majority of respondents prefer that immigration to the UK is reduced by a lot, if not at least by a little. In my research, I find that UK-born residents are more likely to favour immigration restrictions if they live in regions with larger shares of migrants from poorer European and poorer non-European countries and smaller shares of highly skilled natives and immigrants. Other surveys show that students are seen as more beneficial than labour migrants or those coming for spousal reunification (more information here).

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What role does the EU play in influencing the development of integration policy?

By: Helen McCarthy, Research Assistant

Shifts in integration policy

Across the EU, there are wide variations between different countries in how they approach the question of integration of immigrants and their descendants. Whilst some countries (such as the UK and France) have long histories of and experience with migration, others (such as newer members like Poland) have relatively little (recent) experience with large migration inflows. In addition, different countries have very different philosophical/ideological approaches to integration, with the French Republican model that rejects group identities traditionally considered to be on one end, whilst the UK with a more ‘multicultural’ approach has been considered at the other.

globe puzzleNevertheless, recently it has been argued that integration policies across different countries are actually converging and that there are now fewer obvious differences between the different models. And this could be part of a wider shift. With increasing pressure on integration budgets and growing complexity and diversity in communities, it is increasingly hard to justify integration as a standalone policy area leading to an increase in a ‘mainstreamed’ approach to integration – so that integration priorities are simply included in more generic policy areas (see this Breakfast briefing for a discussion). Examining whether, why and how this has happened has been the focus of the UPSTREAM project and one element of the analysis has been investigating the role of the EU within this policy field.

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