Vbycel, rabbi lee 2
Vbycel, rabbi lee 2

Getting ready for the birth of a new country: South Sudan

tambura county, sudan  |  Since 2004 I have made several trips to Darfur, eastern Chad and now southern Sudan. I am here because I believe there is an obligation to “bear witness” and to take action.

One acts in a variety of ways: humanitarian aid, advocacy for human rights and sharing the story of the most vulnerable that are desperately yearning to know that the world cares.


Rabbi Lee Bycel


I got involved when I realized that the world stood by until it was too late during the Holocaust. And during Rwanda, I did not act in any way. Darfur was the catalyst in making me realize my responsibility to do something.

So I am here to witness and to understand what will happen here in two months — when the Republic of South Sudan will become the world’s newest country —and to try and grasp what it will take on a human and political level.

Sitting here in this lush remote village filled with mango trees (unlike much of southern Sudan, which is dry desert), it is hard to imagine how much blood has been spilled here on this soil — more than 2 million people have lost their lives, and 2 million more have seen their villages, homes and lives destroyed.

Southern Sudan and Darfur are inextricably linked. It is no coincidence that the genocide in Darfur began only when the north and south had just about worked out their peace agreement. The reasons for all this are explained in lengthy papers and there are a variety of views. The discussion is complex, but for me it boils down to one fundamental thing: man’s inhumanity to man.

I have visited many health clinics and talked with the people who fled their homes and saw their villages eviscerated. I have met with community leaders who all tell me that the major priorities are providing health care and addressing disease, clean water, adequate food and education.

One needs all of these as the cornerstones of any society. There is no question that matters of resource-sharing and distribution and land rights are among the highest priorities — both issues are simmering — that need to be addressed creatively and strategically. It would be a major error to believe that they suddenly can do all this on their own.

The 20th century was marked by so many advances: scientific, medical, technological and industrial, to name but a few. But one has to wonder: Did we progress as humane human beings?

In Genesis, the first brother kills his brother. The 20th century saw the slaughter of more human beings than ever before — from the Armenian Genocide to the one in Rwanda. New terms were invented to describe what we experienced: Holocaust, genocide, scorched earth and ethnic cleansing. Can there be a way of really describing the horrors that we have inflicted upon each other?

On July 9, these people who have suffered every imaginable atrocity for decades will become the world’s newest country — the Republic of South Sudan. In January of this year, a referendum on independence for the southern part of Sudan was held, and more than 98 percent of the electorate opted for secession from Sudan.

Becoming an independent country will not be an easy task. Currently, for example, in what will be a country of 8 million people, there are no more than 150 trained doctors. Also, there is little infrastructure in the north. In the capital city of Juba, there are just a few paved roads.

There is great potential here, but the aid from the United States, nongovernmental organizations and the rest of the world remains critical. The humanitarian needs are immense in a country where many people are dying from things that are preventable: diarrhea, malaria, lack of access to clean water and a lack of drugs to treat HIV and other retroviruses.

The world will need to be patient and supportive if the people of South Sudan will flourish in a profoundly different way than its soon-to-be neighbor on the north, Sudan.

Like any people, the citizens of South Sudan know what they need. Many people from other countries have already arrived with the hope of making money. Yes, that is needed, too, but is totally inadequate by itself. Hopefully, leaders from different sectors will volunteer their time to help develop a political, business, health, education, legal, social and cultural system that works.

Rather than waiting for crises, perhaps world leaders such as President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela should come here early on, to listen and to provide their input.

Geopolitical issues are incredibly complex and I can only understand them for personal life experience.

Human development and country development both require time, understanding, support and love. At the core of the human experience is doing our part to improve the quality of life for all human beings.

South Sudan is about to be tested — and so are we.

In a world with so much turmoil, can we keep the people of the world’s newest country on our radar and do our part to help them shape a just and civil society? 

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the founder and CEO of CedarStreet Leadership, a leadership development group based in Berkeley. Descriptions of his trip to South Sudan can be found at www.cedarstreetleadership.com.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Vice Chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities and deeply committed to helping JFCS/East Bay and HIAS in their lifesaving work of resettling refugees.