“The Greeks of south Sudan are a tribe. We are not Dinka, we are not Acholi, but we are south Sudanese,” George Ghines said proudly as he recalled that it was traders like his family who first founded the regional capital, Juba.
“I am the last of the Mohicans,” he said 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 fulfills the criteria.”
It was during the first two decades of the last century that Greeks first arrived in south Sudan in significant 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 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.
However, 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.”
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,” he said.
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,” he said.