By Molly Rose Levine
Yesterday was a sad day.
I woke up to an email that I never want to get. Our partners in South Sudan letting us know that the situation in Juba has devolved violently. Our partners are on lockdown, travel blocks are in place for most travel to South Sudan, and some aid organizations are evacuating their staff. INTERSOS and Save the Children Juba can no longer guarantee a safety and evacuation plan for our artists, and it is not advisable that we plan on sharing programming in the next few weeks. Even if the situation calms down, it can change again in an instant. It’s a risk that we take when working in active conflict zones. When we confirm a project, we work under the assumption that that’s not going to happen- but this time, the assumption became reality.
South Sudan is only five years old. South Sudan officially voted to leave Sudan in 2011, and the current conflicts are a piece of a civil war that has been a conflict on some level since 2013. It is between the Government of South Sudan, led by President Salva Kiir, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition, led by former Vice President Riek Machar. It is also an ethnic war, between the Dinka people and the Nuer people. This racial tension spills over into civilian casualties as well and is a significant driving factor of internal displacement. There was a peace agreement in August of 2015 that brought high hopes for many, and the clashes this month are something that many hoped would not come to pass. This is an extremely simplified overview of the background, and it is worth diving in to learn more about this conflict and how it affects the children and families of South Sudan. You can start here, here, and here.
With a heavy heart, we notified the artistic team around the world, in Brazil, Russia, and Colorado, that we would be postponing the project. Spent the time on hold with the airlines to cancel tickets and file insurance claims. Sent messages of support to our friends in South Sudan. So much time, energy and enthusiasm screeching to a halt, barred by violence that none of us have any control over. Each artist, upon hearing the news, shared sadness and grief at the worrisome turn the country has taken, and in the same breath re-dedicated themselves to our work: “I’m here when it’s time. I’m ready for the project. When it’s safe, we’re ready to go.”
And there’s a reason that even as we cancel flights, wait for VISAS we now can’t use, and move on with our lives, that we still wait with bated breath for the moment when it’s once again safe enough to send in the clowns.
That reason is our audience.
As fighting broke out in Juba, hundreds of civilians fled to the UN compound to seek protection. There are already more than 1.6 million people in Juba who are internally displaced due to the conflict. And just as we now cannot come, they cannot leave. Even as we postpone our program, our audiences are there, trapped in an environment of conflict, and now we cannot be with them.
Yet, the resilience in laughter is present even when we are not. The children and families living through this civil war show incredible resilience every day. They dare to live, every day. When the moment comes when we can create a performance, or tour a juggling workshop, these strong people are going to be there, ready to laugh and build community with us, in spite of unthinkable circumstances.
When that moment comes, we will be ready for them, with noses, horns, bubbles, and belly laughs, to celebrate how much these people matter. Even in an active crisis, in the midst of a civil war, in the midst of a violent conflict, the children, and families who are living in South Sudan matter. They are valuable and human – as human as any of us. They did not ask to be a part of this war. They deserve moments of laughter and levity. They deserve moments of stress relief. They deserve the basic right to safety. And we will hold them in our hearts until we can tell them that in person.