Last Updated: Sat Jan 15, 2011 13:05 pm (KSA) 10:05 am (GMT)

South-Sudan’s lost white tribe: the Juba Greeks

It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that Greeks first arrived in south Sudan in numbers
It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that Greeks first arrived in south Sudan in numbers

"The Greeks of south Sudan are a tribe. We are not Dinka, we are not Acholi, but we are south Sudanese," George Ghines says proudly as he recalls that it was traders like his family who first founded the regional capital Juba.

"I am the last of the Mohicans," he adds sadly, acknowledging that after the ravages of 50 years of conflict between north and south, he is the only pure-blooded Juba-born descendant of the original Greek settlers who still lives permanently in the city.

Born in Juba, the scion of the family that first settled in south Sudan in 1905 and whose own father settled in the town nearly two decades before the end of British colonial rule, Ghines attempted to exercise his right to register in this week's landmark referendum on independence for the region.

"It was difficult to register because they have never before seen a white south Sudanese," Ghines said.

"They didn't believe that a white Sudanese exists and fulfils the criteria."

It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that Greeks first arrived in south Sudan in numbers.

The territory's then British colonial rulers encouraged them to settle for their commercial skills and they founded Juba as a commercial entrepot across the White Nile from the then British military headquarters.

"They brought people here who were very entrepreneurial. They didn't want them to be French or Italian or any other colonial power," said Ghines, who himself runs a Juba-based restaurant and business consultancy.

The traders built their homes in a neighborhood the British called the Greek Quarters, now known as Hay Jellaba.

"You have all the buildings with the Greek columns. Of course it is now in a very bad state because of 50 years of neglect," Ghines said.

At its height the community numbered a little under 10,000 out of a total of 22,000 across the Sudan.

The Juba Greeks boasted the whole raft of institutions built by Greek diaspora communities around the world -- an Orthodox church, a library, two social clubs.

One Greek club retained its name until just two years ago, although by then nearly all of its clients were south Sudanese without any Hellenic ancestry, staff at what is now the Paradise restaurant said.
But it is what has happened to the community's cemetery that really irks Ghines.

Litter is strewn across the overgrown grass and creepers that conceal the graves, and the cemetery has clearly been used as an impromptu lavatory by the junior officers who sleep out under canvas behind the adjacent police station.

"I haven't been here for two years. There is a lot of garbage and the vegetation has grown a lot. I am very sad and extremely embarrassed," he said.

"These people were pioneers and I believe that these people deserve much better than this image that you see today.

"Unfortunately the Greek government is completely negligent. We don't exist. It is really sad."

Refuge in Greece

Ghines has a Greek passport as well as his Sudanese one. The start of the south's second devastating civil war with the north in 1983 found him in Athens preparing for university after completing his schooling in Juba and then Khartoum.

His home city became a garrison town for the northern army, besieged and repeatedly bombarded by the southern rebels in the surrounding countryside, and he was forced to seek refuge.

"Greece was the only country to receive us. I couldn't go to Canada or Britain or Australia and say I was a refugee because they wouldn't believe us. We don't have the right color."

After a decade and a half wandering around the Middle East and North Africa, the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war finally gave him the opportunity to return to his native town. He arrived just six days after its signing.

"It is a sad case because we lost everything through the war. It was let's take a bet to get back my lost pride," he said.

He now runs a restaurant which serves tsatsiki and Greek salad with feta cheese alongside south Sudanese dishes. Appropriately it is called the Notos after the south wind of the ancient Greeks as Ghines makes no secret of his support for the southern cause.

"I am a supporter for a state with inhabitants who can live in freedom."

Ghines is the only pure-blooded Juba Greek to have returned. "People my age, my classmates, all of them have rebuilt their lives outside south Sudan which makes it difficult for them to come back."

But there are still offspring of mixed marriages in the town. He says the wife of southern regional president Salva Kiir, Yalouri, is herself the daughter of a Greek father and a Dinka mother.

"We have 25 to 30 children of mixed marriages, we meet quite often. We are trying to revive the Greek community in Juba."

Ghines says he is often hurt by the fact that so many of his compatriots regard him as just another white among the thousands of Western aid workers and diplomats whose 4x4s clog the city's streets.

"When I walk down the streets of Juba, I don't imagine myself as anything other than south Sudanese.

"I feel a bit resentful. We don't get any credit for what we did for this country.

"On the other side, I realize that the new nation has a lot of priorities. We are probably at the bottom of the list."

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