Omaha — South Sudanese from across the United States came to Omaha, Nebraska on Saturday, January 19, 2013, to honor and pay their respects to the late Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol, who was assassinated on December 5, 2012 by unknown assassins in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.
Over 700 people gathered at the Autism Center of Nebraska to celebrate his life and legacy with speeches and words from scripture. The biography and the heartbreaking letter by Aluel, the 16-year-old daughter of late Isaiah were read by Bol Deng and Diing Arok, two family members who were part of the team that orgainzed the memorial service.
"My father's great passion for South Sudan has caused his life, and left me without father, left my siblings without father, left mothers without husband, left uncles and aunts without a brother, left grandmother without son," read the letter, the same letter that was read during funeral services in South Sudan.
The memorial was organized by Kongor Community under the leadership of Abuoi Monychol Deng in association with the Greater Bor Community in the U.S. headed by Deng Lueth Mayom. Of course we should report that the first memorial/funeral services were held back in December at the burial site in Kongor payam, in Twic East County, the birthplace of the late Isaiah Diing Chan Awuol. But as is common tradition among South Sudanese, holding memorials for loved ones can happen anywhere there are relatives of the dead.
It was a somber evening which opened with the playing of South Sudanese National Anthem. But before various speakers were called to speak, the organizing committee of the Memorial Service, made up of all the secretaries of three counties (Pager Ajang, Dau Acuoth, Solomon Mading and James Maluak Malou, the secretary general of GBC, made it very clear that Kongor Community and Greater Bor Community were organizing the memorial as a way to pay tribute to their native son, not as a "campaign against the government". They felt obligated to clear the air because of the unfounded rumors that the public outrage surrounding Isaiah Diing's death might be used to weaken the government.
For many South Sudanese at home and in the Diaspora, the senseless killing of Isaiah Abraham last month became a galvanizing force, allowing them to face their fears, and express their outrage by demanding that the government investigate and bring to justice the killers. For once, people said Diing never committed a crime worthy of his life; he just was being critical like every free citizen would do to express views about the direction of the country and that he did not deserve to die for that.
"His death became a tipping point after all the years of built up anger," eloquently declared Solomon Mading Awan, one of the organizers of the memorial.
That proof of outrage was in the numbers and the unmistakable cry for justice Saturday evening when all South Sudanese communities came and spoke united in a common solidarity with the still grieving relatives of the deceased. People shared many great memories, and personal testimonies and legacy of the man who many believed was taken too soon from his family and children when he was murdered in that senseless way.
The evening brought together invited guests and leaders from the following communities: Marko Agok Ajang from Aweil community; Kwaje Lasu from Greater Equatoria community; Dau Deng from Paanaru; Banak Kueth from Nuer community; Mabor Riang from Lakes State; and Deng Madut from Twic Mayardit community. Nybol Akok, the representative of Women league was also on hand. Also present at the event were the leaders and representatives from the three counties of Greater Bor Community: Yol Goch Aciek from Duk, Daniel Nhial Lual from Bor South and Mabeny Kuot from Twic East. The elder Deng Bior gave the key note address. All these leaders spoke words of support and encouragement to a family, community and a nation still reeling to pull through in these trying times.
The mood during the evening was palpable for its mix of pain, anger, disappointment, despair and yet equally palpable for its dogged determination, hope and faith in the future. There was anger and sadness in the words of loved ones who are still in shock and confusion, struggling with letting go of the evil that took Isaiah. There was collective disappointment from a public that still suspects the government "had hand" in the death of Isaiah given that he was a fierce critic of the government; his last articles on the 'Mile 14' and the cooperation agreement in general were cited as case in point. They cried for justice to be done in the case of Diing and that of many innocent South Sudanese. DSCN0297
But there was also hope and consolation that however difficult things have been, the people of South Sudan have overcome adversities.
"We will overcome this," said Dr. Philip Tor Manyok, who said the loss of Isaiah is like losing 'three people.". He said "Isaiah was a citizen, a father and uncle," and the nation lost all those three at once. He called on all South Sudanese to embrace diversity and "not be frightened by their tribes but instead view them as source of beauty and diversity."
The common line that became repeated by all speakers throughout the evening was: "the death of Diing Chan Awuol has not only affected his family, Kongor community or Greater Bor, but indeed the entire South Sudan."
Mr. Kwaje Lasu, chairman of Greater Equatoria Community in the U.S., extended his "heartfelt condolences to the family of Diing and the all the peace loving people of South Sudan," adding, "we condemn in the strongest terms the killing of Isaiah and other innocent South Sudanese."
People who spoke remembered and hailed Isaiah Diing as a hero who embodied decency, patriotism, character, courage and conviction; who died championing the cause of good neighborliness among tribes, accountability in government and above all, true nationalism. They said he did that through free self-expression, one of the core principles and fruits of the freedom he and millions began fighting for since the day he joined the liberation movement at age 21.
"He was the embodiment of what our community wants," said Pager Ajang Kur of Omaha, the host city, who was acting as lead organizer and also member of the organizing committee. "He was the embodiment of what our country wants."
One of the people who spoke very movingly about the late Isaiah was Mabeny Kuot Deng, who is the current vice president of Twic East Community in the U.S. "As someone who has lost a brother, freedom is not free," said Mabeny, his voice overcome with emotion. Mabeny is SPLA veteran, who was wounded during the war. He joined the war of liberation at a young age. He was disappointed and heartbroken by the loss of Isaiah Diing, who he said saved SPLA soldiers during their deployment in Kor Kalany area around Kapoeta back in the 90s. At the time, he said relations between SPLA and the local community of Taposa were really tense. But he said Diing took risk to go talk with the Taposas and succeeded in bringing about peace. He said late Isaiah had embedded himself in the culture and tradition of Taposa, and learned their dialect and customs and began persuading them to treat the SPLA as brothers in arms against the enemy in Khartoum. As a result of that cooperation, relief aid that was not reaching SPLA soldiers began coming and there was no fear of attack.
Mr. Chol Reec, one of the elders who spoke, said Isaiah should be remembered for his intelligence. Mr. Reec said that although he never knew Isaiah personally, he came to admire his writings. He called for a collection of Isaiah's articles to be organized and "printed as booklet" as a way to keep his legacy alive. Mr. Reec said the articles reminded him of Cry, the Beloved Country, a novel by South African author Alan Paton he read in the 60'.
All the relatives and family of the deceased represented by Padol section of Kongor were called to come in front to pay their tribute.
Their moving tribute was delivered by Teresa Kuir Yaak.
All the maternal uncles and aunts came in front of the audience to pay their tribute. Ajah Malith Wel, Diing's aunt, expressed the palpable pain surrounding the loss. She relayed greetings from Lueth Wel Akau, who said is still distraught and heartbroken by the loss of her son; who still can't understand why it is South Sudan, the place she has loved so much and given her all, that is the one that continues to betray her.
Ajah shared a moving tribute to her nephew by emphasizing her own story of upbringing in the context of greater cooperation between the two clans of Kongor and Palek; the unbreakable bond of friendship between Abraham Chan Awuol, the legendary chief of Padol and the father of Isaiah and her own father, Malith Wel Akau.DSCN0298
Ajah said she grew up in Kongor under the watchful eyes of Rebecca Lueth who convinced her family in Palek that having little Ajah with her in Kongor would be reminding her of them. Ajah said that upon learning of the news of Isaiah Death while here in the U.S., she despaired and the first question that came to her mind was: "did we brave the terrible snow and winter conditions of 2011 when we drove with children to come to Omaha to vote for independence only to lose my nephew to a South Sudanese gun? "
But she said as a family, they know Isaiah has sacrificed his precious life for the sake of country and freedom. She said Isaiah Diing died a "proud man."
The speakers were unmistakably firm in voicing their condemnation of the way citizens are being lost back home, some of them from Diaspora; the way people are silenced and threatened in South Sudan and they asked the government to effect urgent changes.
Mabor Riang from Lakes State, testifying to the constant fear people have in South Sudan, applauded the courage of late Isaiah, comparing him heroes like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and said that more Isaiah Abrahams are needed in South Sudan or else citizens will continue to live in silence and "nothing will change."
The evening also saw the sounding, in form of a question, a clarion call—a call for this generation to figure out what their role will be.
David Dau Acuoth, one of the organizers spoke to that call and challenged South Sudanese to figure out their mission.
Daniel Nhial said one of the lessons to take away from all the bad things going on in South Sudan is for all citizens to start engaging their representatives back home, because "we know laws are made in the parliament," he said. "If citizens just keep talking without getting involved, nothing will change." He said although the fight to have every citizen exercise their right to freedom of speech is not cheap because it "comes at high cost, it is a winnable war," he added.
"Sadly South Sudan fought for 50 years to attain liberty, freedom to do or say what you want as citizen but there is no freedom in our new country. My father would not have died. He was exercising freedom of expression but some people have different interpretation on what that means in our constitution," added the letter from the daughter of late Isaiah.
"I'm only 16 years old. I wish to grow up in better South Sudan than this. I strongly believe my dad was killed for advocating for better South Sudan, and I 'm not afraid to say this."
In the end, late Isaiah Abraham was remembered fondly for his kind and loving roles as father, for his heroism during the war of liberation, for his bravery and peace making ability as an ordained priest of the Episcopal Church, for his brilliant mind that saw him excel in obtaining not one but two academic degrees of Bachelors and MBA, for his courageous and patriotic fight for freedom of expression through prolific political commentary and columns he authored over the years.
Isaiah Abraham is survived by two wives and five children. He was 50 years old.