Retired diplomat shares South Sudan experience

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“It was coming up to Christmas, the [UN radio station] was playing Christmas carols and we could hear gunfire all over the place,” said Nicholas Coghlan, Canada’s former top diplomat in South Sudan, describing the beginning of a civil war and ethnic-cleansing operation that has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2013.

“There were rumours all over the place, and we were just trying to figure out [what was going on]. We were located between two major army bases. We could hear the fighting on both sides and could also hear tanks moving between them . . .There was no official news.”

Coghlan was stationed in the capital city of Juba with his wife Jennifer when the war began. They scrambled to pull together resources to help South Sudanese Canadians — most of whom were from the minority Nuer tribe — escape the devastation of the Dinka tribe. Coghlan’s new book, Collapse of a Country, talks about the events leading up to the war and describes in detail the effort made to evacuate, and the Coghlans’ own escape from the East African nation.

Coghlan will give a talk about his book and experiences at the Salt Spring Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 22, beginning at 7 p.m.

The conflict in South Sudan began in December 2013, and has since caused the death of 380,000 people, according to a count done by the U.S. State Department. Most of the casualties are civilian, as the ethnic cleansing of the Nuer people by the Dinka tribe also caused massive displacement within and out of the country. Coghlan wrote his book to help bring more attention to the tragedy.

“At the last count, over 100 humanitarian workers had been killed, which is more than Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. It’s an ongoing tragedy, which from my point of view doesn’t get the attention that it deserves,” he said. “The figures just get worse and worse. Because there are no great western interests there it is seen as ‘just’ a humanitarian tragedy.”

When fighting erupted around the Coghlans, they immediately went into crisis mode. As embassy staff, their primary function was to help people escape the country.

Typically, when people visit a country they are encouraged to reach out to their embassy and check in, which lets the embassy know the number of citizens in the country in case of an emergency. However, most of the South Sudanese Canadians had not done that, so when the fighting began, the Coghlans had no idea how many Canadians were in the country.

“The initial reaction from Ottawa when something like this happens is to get us out. We told them that we thought we had a bunch of Canadian nationals,” Coghlan said. “They looked at the list and it only had 17 registered. But we renewed five passports per week, so we knew we had a lot more.”

The Coghlans stayed in the country for about 10 days, until they were evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya. They continued to help Canadians left behind remotely, coming in once a week to take six or seven people out of the country.

Their posting in South Sudan was their last before retiring in 2016. The Coghlans were honoured with the Meritorious Service Cross for their work in 2017.

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