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Featured Eyewitness: Dr Isaac Gang

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To inform our community collaboration on the Atrocity Prevention Challenge, we're keen to share first-hand perspectives from those who have experience in contexts of mass violence. Dr. Isaac Gang is a South Sudanese-American Educator, peace facilitator and political and human rights activist. He was formerly a jesh el amher (Arabic for child soldier or red army) in the South Sudanese rebel movement.
 
Can you tell us, as a child, how you felt to be isolated from your friends 
and family?
Being isolated from family and friends was tough and sometimes unbearable – but it was a situation I grew to tolerate and even appreciate. I think it shapes the person I am today. At times, being away from family and friends was a way out of village and actually meant giving children opportunities that they would have not gotten otherwise – so there was always a level of consolation in that perspective. Even the recruitment of children into the rebel movement was always done under the pretext of taking them to school in refugee camps – so their families were often at ease and allowed their children to be taken with little resistance.
 
I was able to learn the essence of leadership at a very young age. And because all I knew was war for most of my childhood, I became very passionate about peace. This sort of explains my current work and activism. 
 
How as your communication with the outside world limited?
With today's technological revolution, it is hard to look back and imagine what not being able to communicate with family, much less outside world, felt like. In the military training camps, communicating with the outside world was not an option. The only outside people we would have a direct contact with were the military leaders who would come and give talks. As such, the communication with the outside world was not only limited but non-existent.
 
If you could have sent one message to the rest of the world at this time, to help you and others who were in your situation, what would it have been?
My wish list has always been been school, school and school. So once I realised military training and not education was my fate, it was always my wish to someday be given the chance at and the gift of education.
 
What are the main insights you'd like to share with our community – many of whom have never been exposed to contexts of mass violence?
Conflict of any kind should be avoided by all means. Looking at all the world conflicts, there are very few instances, if any, where either the aggressors look back and are proud of perpetrating it or think that their victims were deserving such treatment. For this reason, it is essential for all peace loving people to do whatever they can to positively influence those who are in the position of power – to reduce, if not eliminate, future conflicts. For those who have no firsthand experience of mass violence, they should know that victims of such violence are not angry at the world and don't necessarily want people to feel sorry for them. What they really need is to be empowered. Though they may be vulnerable, they are also battle-tested and usually just need to get back on their feet. It is so often the case that those who try to help mass violence victims want to do it out of pity. From personal experience, victims actually feel empowered when they see the people who are trying to help doing things with them, rather than for them.
 
How have your experiences inspired your current work?
My experience has a lot to do with all my professional pursuits and advocacy. I am currently involved with peace and leadership training for South Sudanese youth and marginalised Sudanese in the US and South Sudan. I have been involved with the Leadership Institute of New Sudan (LIONS) and the Jonglei Peace Initiative in North America (JPINA) for many years. While LIONS provides training, JPINA facilitates inter-tribal peace in the state of Jonglei (one of the ten states in South Sudan) where tribal conflict has overshadowed all other positive developments in the state. These are causes in which I intend to support for my lifetime.
 
Do you have any words of encouragement for folks joining our Atrocity Prevention Challenge?
From personal experience, doing something positive to prevent mass violence or support atrocities victims is like helping a child. It is a gift that keeps on giving. Anything one can contribute positively is always timely and there never a better time than now.
 
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Photo of Arjan Tupan

Wow, inspiring interview. And some great advise for those joining the challenge. I also appreciate the encouragement. Being someone who has no first-hand experience of atrocities like this, I often feel absolutely helpless and useless when I learn of another horrible event taking place. I really hope that participating in the challenge will help in a small way.

Photo of Ann Brown

Agreed, an inspiring and insightful interview; the field notes on this challenge are very good and particularly important I think. As you say Arjan, many of us are fortunate enough to have not experienced or witnessed such atrocities, which makes the last paragraph all the more encouraging.