copnallBreaking up is hard to do.

Breaking up is even harder to do after decades. Harder still if these decades are full of violence, racial and religious tension, and political and economic instability. And hardest of all if millions are at risk daily due to each actor’s choices.

Welcome to Sudan and South Sudan, divorced in July 2011 but in no way free of each other. These two nations, bound by a history of war within and across borders, are a complicated case for humanitarian and political activists around the world. Westerners especially struggle to understand the area’s culture and history, ultimately wondering what exactly went so wrong in these troubled lands. After reporting in the region for BBC, author and journalist James Copnall takes on the challenge of not only understanding the Sudans for himself, but explaining it to the world.

A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce explores the structures and culture that led up to the split of Sudan and its southern neighbor. It also explores potential futures in the region.

First and foremost, Copnall’s work is well-armed in facts. Firsthand accounts authenticate memories, and research and numbers bolster his reasoning. Copnall doesn’t dumb down the truth for his readers, but he does include personality that wouldn’t be found in a traditional history book. One passage discussing the Islamic ideals for society includes a crude excerpt from a novel that was banned in the region in which a woman praises her husband’s sexual prowess. Descriptions of Sudanese president Bashir include not only his rap sheet of mass atrocities, but his eerily cheerful dance moves. To illustrate Sudan’s economic systems, Copnall uses the personal account of a Darfuri tea woman.

Underneath all of the acronyms, statistics and even the anecdotes, Copnall leaves us with an unadulterated description of Sudan and South Sudan, and their culture, government and role, both nationally and internationally. Though the split of South Sudan was a huge step in the regional identity crisis, Copnall gives no false hope for the future of the land. Both Sudan and South Sudan seem to move one step forward, only to then fall two steps behind.

The last two years in Sudan and South Sudan have seen such steps backwards. The violence in Darfur, Sudan is at the worst levels since the height of the genocide in 2003-2004, and a vicious battle for control of South Sudan that began in December 2013 has put the very existence of South Sudan in jeopardy. In an afterword from February 2014, Copnall concludes “Peace in both countries seems a long way off.”

This complex and thoughtful read attempts to explain a complex conflict from root to tip, and readers must not shy away from the bleak and complicated truth. Copnall makes the journey worthwhile with well structured, captivating but realistic storytelling. A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts is one of our chances at understanding the situation in the Sudans, which is the first step in equipping ourselves to help those affected by the violence and conflict.


Order A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce on Amazon and United to End Genocide will receive a portion of the proceeds.

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