The Catholic bishops of South Sudan have condemned as immoral and senseless a complex war in their country, which has proven far bloodier than that of the Islamic State in Syria.
The war in Africa’s newest nation has unfolded over the last three years. It has taken a heavy toll on civilians, killing thousands and displacing millions.
The conflict ignited in December 2013, as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir, a Catholic, and his former deputy, Dr. Riek Machar Teny, a Presbyterian. Within a month it had erupted into an ethnic conflict, with soldiers loyal to Kiir, from the Dinka tribe, and rebels aligned with Machar, from the ethnic Nuer, fighting in towns and villages throughout the country.
Such scenes have continued in South Sudan. In July 2016, opposing sides engaged in fierce gun battles, sparking the latest crisis. In a three-day fight for the control of the capital of Juba, hundreds of women were raped and hundreds more people were killed as government soldiers went door-to-door flushing out members of Machar’s Nuer community.
In the last few months, concerns have emerged that ethnic cleansing is taking place in the country, against a background of massacres, gang rapes, the burning of villages, and widespread starvation.
Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, sounded the latest warning on February 9.
“We still see on-going clashes, and the risk that mass atrocities will be committed remain ever present,” Dieng said.
In 2015, the parties to the conflict signed a peace agreement, establishing the Transitional Government of National Unity. Limited implementation of the pact has resulted in the humanitarian and economic situations worsening. Early last year, aware that many peace agreements had been violated in the country, the Catholic bishops said they’d give their blessing to any plan from the international community to salvage the situation in South Sudan.
Still, Dieng advised that all fighting groups must cease hostilities and invest in the peace process before the destruction of the country’s social fabric becomes irreversible.
In September, Auxiliary Bishop Santo Loku of the Archdiocese of Juba also warned that the country was in grave danger.
“We need to get up and be strong, and say, ‘God help to carve a new way,’” said Bishop Loku.
Last January, Archbishop Paolino Lukudu Loro of Juba had highlighted similar concern, saying that the war was about power, not about the good of the people.
“The aspirations of individuals and factions have led to a cycle of revenge killing. The whole nation, including the leaders and the fighters, is exhausted with war, and is being worn down by attrition,” Archbishop Loro said in a statement on behalf of the bishops of South Sudan.
“The fighting and killing must stop immediately and unconditionally,” the archbishop said.
Yet, after three years of killings, massacre, murders, raping, and general violence the country, the international community remains largely aloof to what is happening in this part of the world. Even attempts to impose an arms embargo and sanctions have been defeated.
For now, the war remains another “forgotten conflict” in the heart of Africa, observers conclude.
Not so long ago, world leaders—including bishops, politicians, and diplomats—trooped to East Africa to celebrate the country’s independence. The 10 southern-most states of Sudan attained their freedom in 2011, becoming the world’s newest nation.
Now, the bishops of South Sudan find themselves shepherding a traumatized and desperate population, which is already showing the exhaustion of war. The bishops have been amplifying the people’s cry for peace—sometimes, it seems they have been heard; other times, they have been pushed to the periphery.
“The Church cannot ignore the moral and human cost of so much violence in our midst, and is working in dioceses, parishes, and schools to bring a change in people’s hearts,” Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Yamboi-Tombura said in an article last July.
The exact toll in the war is unknown, since reliable data has not been available. Although the figures are hard to verify, in March 2016, a UN official told agencies that nearly 50,000 people had been killed in the then-two-year-old conflict.
An estimated three million people have been displaced by the conflict, some living in camps within the country and some outside. One million refugees have fled to neighboring countries.
There are generations that were born in war, grew up in war, and are now raising their children in war.
While working to help the people, the Church and Church personnel have been subjected to frequent attacks, threats, and robberies.
Last May, Sister Veronika Theresia Racková, the 58-year-old director of the St. Bakhita Medical Centre in the town of Yei, was shot at night while driving a pregnant woman to the hospital. Sister Veronika died in Nairobi, while undergoing treatment for her injuries.
“Attacking medical personnel is a war crime and a crime against humanity, but Sister Veronika is only one of thousands of women, men, and children who have been killed in this senseless conflict,” a statement from South Sudan’s bishops said at the time.
On December 28, 2015, five armed men climbed the fence around the Solidarity Teacher Training College and confronted a group of religious sisters who were retiring for the night. The armed men took money, phones, and computers and physically assaulted the sisters.
In spite of the conflict, the Catholic bishop have remained hopeful, reminding the people that those fighting are small minority of the country’s population.
The bishops are working with the South Sudan Council of Churches on an action plan for peace involving advocacy, organizing neutral forums for dialogue, and reconciliation.
These advocacy efforts aim at changing the narrative within the country for a negotiated peace agreement, as well as at the implementation of such an agreement. The neutral forums aim at bringing people to talk in less politically charged environments, where they can overcome mistrust and disagreements on important national issues. Through reconciliation and healing meetings, the Church is leveraging the values of forgiveness and reconciliation.
At the moment, ending the human suffering through a total ceasefire, bringing safety to the people in town and villages, improving the economy, bringing services to the people, and resolving the humanitarian situation are the most pressing issues.
In December, President Kiir announced a national dialogue that would be led by distinguished South Sudanese leaders. Retired Catholic Bishop Paride Taban of Torit and Professor Moses Machar Kachuol were appointed the chairpersons of a committee to lead this initiative.
The Church has welcomed the president’s call for dialogue. It has also noted that the Church alone cannot bring peace and reconciliation to South Sudan. But Church leaders have pledged to take a leading role in encouraging all other people of goodwill.
“There is no other national institution that can take on this leadership role, we humbly accept this burden of responsibility,” Bishop Taban said in a recent statement.
At the same time, while noting the future of the country does not depend on military and political leaders only, the bishops emphasize that with the help of God, the people of South Sudan will bring peace, reconciliation, and justice to their country.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!