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Bishops hang on to hope in ‘shameful’ South Sudan

21 August 2015

As a new peace deal falters, Madeleine Davies investigates the plight of South Sudan


Catching them young: a member of the UNPOL child-protection unit plays with a young child in a temporary school in a safe haven in South Sudan, last month

Catching them young: a member of the UNPOL child-protection unit plays with a young child in a temporary school in a safe haven in South Sudan, last m...

THE Bishop of Maridi, South Sudan, the Rt Revd Justin Badi, has no doubt about the cause of the "hopeless and shameful" situation in which his countrymen find themselves.

"All the bad things are the products of the devil, whose aim is always to divide, destroy, and uplift self-will," he says.

Reading the accounts of the horror that stalks Unity state, it is hard not to conclude that something hellish has taken hold. Fighting flared up in the state in April when government forces (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA), aided by militias, attacked villages from three fronts.

Aid workers from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) managed to interview 115 victims and witnesses.

One woman described how she was dragged out of her home and gang-raped in front of her three-year-old child. In at least nine separate incidents, women and girls were burnt in tukuls (mud huts) after being gang-raped. UNICEF reported that boys had been castrated and left to bleed to death, and girls as young as eight had been gang-raped and murdered. The thousands displaced in Unity — up to 100,000 since April — are believed to have survived by wading out to the swamps, relying on fish and water lilies for food.

The SPLA has said that it will support investigations, but denies that its forces were involved in human-rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has denounced a "decades-old culture of impunity". Opposition forces in the region have also been accused of violations.

The level of cruelty it uncovered prompted UNMISS to identify "a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences". When the current conflict broke out in December 2013, only two years after South Sudan celebrated independence from the North, bishops were keen to emphasise that it was political, not ethnic, in nature (News, 20 December 2013).

They urged people not to fall prey to attempts to divide them along tribal lines, "as we are all South Sudanese". Almost two years on, it appears that their plea has fallen on deaf ears.

The conflict began as a split within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Party. The President, Salva Kiir, accused the Vice President, Riek Machar, of a coup.

Fighting between factions loyal to the two sides broke out in the streets of the capital, Juba, and escalated along tribal lines. Mr Kiir is from the majority Dinka tribe, Mr Machar from the Nuer. The army has since split, again largely along ethnic lines.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis that has developed is formidable. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the population — 4.6 million people — are unable to meet their needs for food.

Ten thousand people have been killed and two million displaced, including 600,000 who now shelter in neighbouring countries. Fighting has forced aid workers to evacuate some states. World Vision, which is attempting to meet basic needs — food, clean water, and mosquito netting — recently returned to Upper Nile State, but warns that access remains "tenuous". In the past year, four World Food Programme workers have disappeared without trace.

Against this backdrop, the UN, and Western leaders are fast losing patience with South Sudan’s leaders. A ceasefire brokered in January 2014 has been repeatedly breached, and deadlines set in negotiations led by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development have lapsed without action. On Tuesday, another deadline lapsed. The President said that he needed more time.

Among the Bishops, who lived through the 22-year civil war with the North, in which two million people died, there is little surprise at the turn of events.

"Not only were the South Sudanese traumatised and highly militarised: there was poor leadership and bad governance," the Bishop of Wau, the Rt Revd Moses Deng, says. He was himself detained and tortured during the last war. "So many South Sudanese knew that the country was heading in a wrong direction, but they did not know what to do."

"Many South Sudanese were born during the war, even our grandfathers," the Bishop of Renk, the Rt Revd Joseph Garang Atem, says "and though they may be traumatised, I also think that a lack of patriotism in the hearts of some South Sudanese is really the problem."

The Bishop of Malek, Dr Peter Joh Mayom, says that South Sudan’s identity has been "eaten up by the tribalism". He cites a survey that suggests that 70-75 per cent of South Sudanese regard their tribe — not South Sudan — as their national identity. It is the small percentage who remember life before the war with the North who identify with the nation, but "many of them are dying, and some are retiring from politics."

The causes of his anger are clear: "Everybody is looking for their personal interests. The negotiation between the government and rebels is centred on positions rather than the saving of lives of ordinary citizens.

"The international community has failed the people of South Sudan because they have been siding and helping these leaders to continue failing people. We lack visionary leaders. While they were all in the government, they were happy looting from the public. They do not have a reformed agenda — none of them. They are tribal leaders, and they have destroyed the nation."

Anger is evident, too, in the latest statement from the Sudan Council of Churches in June, which began with a fiery passage from Ezekiel ("If you do not speak to warn someone wicked to renounce evil . . .").

All the Churches’ guidance had been ignored, it said, and it was time to stop being like guide dogs and become watchdogs, to "warn our leaders and our people to renounce wickedness and evil ways". It was "unacceptable to negotiate posts and positions while people are killing and being killed".

The statement concluded that there was "no political will for peace", and that "only the Church can bring about true forgiveness and reconciliation."

Few of the ten Bishops who spoke to the Church Times believed that the latest deadline for a peace agreement would be met. Most had little time for the threatened sanctions, described by Bishop Mayom as "like adding petrol on the fire".

While conscious of the need for a political agreement, several provided examples of reconciliation conceived outside the conference rooms of Ethiopian hotels.

In the diocese of Wau, they have just launched Pentecost Celebration Sunday, a service bringing together people together from different tribes, who are asked "to sing in their mother tongue" and sing as one.

Bishop Moses Deng has seen a "sense of joy and unity . . . a testimony that our people can still live together as one people".

The Bishop of Renk, the Rt Revd Joseph Atem Garang, says: "In my Church now, we have many different ethnic groups, and we meet together to discuss peace and worship together. Therefore, there is hope that war will come to an end soon, and we will be rejoicing and praise God for the great work he has done for South Sudan."

This potential for a home-grown peace has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The UK Government — one of the top three donors to the crisis — is funding faith organisations, including the Catholic Relief Services.

In a piece for The New York Times last month, a former US envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, described the country’s churches — which claim the loyalty of 60 per cent of the population — as "a rare indigenous actor with both moral authority and a reach that transcends tribe and region".

The Assistant Chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the Revd Jesse Zink, has made many trips to South Sudan while conducting research for his doctoral dissertation on the Church there.

"What has always struck me about the Church and its leaders is their commitment, but also the serious lack of resources with which they minister," he says. "Many clergy have had little education because the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s made it impossible to get. Many support themselves with subsistence agriculture and lead a congregation as they are able."

He is convinced, nevertheless, that "there is a lot of hope here," pointing to the Church’s history of "effective, grass-roots peace-making", which paved the way to the end of the civil war. "The question is if we — that is, Christians outside South Sudan — are willing to commit to our sisters and brothers in this important work."

It is a pertinent question. Last month the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams warned that the crisis had "fallen off the radar of the world". Both World Vision and Christian Aid — which Lord Williams chairs — have spoken of the difficulty of training the world’s eyes on to South Sudan’s distress.

Baroness Cox, founder of Human­itarian Aid Relief Trust, warns that the lack of media coverage has "serious implications for governments and groups perpetrating human rights violations: it encourages them to do so with more impunity, out of the glare of publicity".

Last month, Lord Williams led a day of discussions with the South Sudanese diaspora in the UK alongside the RC Bishop of Torit, Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban, who described the Church as a mother who is "always looking for healing her own children". His prescription echoed that of his Anglican colleagues: South Sudan needs a change of heart.

"What we need to today is forgiveness, repentance, to say ‘I love you, I miss you, thank you, I forgive you, we forget the past together, I am wrong and I am sorry. When we cannot say that it is very difficult to create peace."

The Bishops have faith that God will work among their people. "In this world, there are many countries which have gone through like South Sudan," says the Bishop of Roko, the Rt Revd Francis Loyo Mori. "The time will come when these guns will stop firing on innocent civilians, and the rains of peace will rest on this nation."

And Bishop Badi has not given up hope. "From a human point of view, there is doubt in achieving true peace now; but as Christians we do believe in miracles do happen at the will of God. . . . When Christ reigns in the life of people and their leaders, there is hope for tranquillity and unity of the people."



'At least I get coffee'

Melany Markham, a communications manager in Juba, describes NGO life

A COUPLE of days after I first arrived in South Sudan, I remember asking another aid worker, who had been here for several months, what it was like. He looked me in the eye grimly and gave a one-word answer: "Gruelling." He wasn’t wrong.

Partly, it’s the long hours. Earlier this week, I was discussing a media release with a counterpart in another NGO at 11 p.m. Neither of us apologised for the late hour. We both assumed the other was working. That was the 19th day I had worked without a break.

Ten of those days were spent in field sites, which is also physically gruelling. The food shortage across the country meant that for four days I didn’t eat a proper meal, only snacks that I had carried with me, and bread and biscuits that I bought in the small towns we drove though.

As if the physical challenges were not enough, the environment is emotionally and mentally stressful. The conflict has put more and more restrictions on the movement of people and aid. It often takes a couple of hours in a plane, and then several more in a four-wheel drive on roads that are almost washed away to reach people with aid. Last week, I passed a food truck that had broken down in the middle of the road, admitting defeat to the potholes. If we are lucky enough to get to the end of the journey, there is often a man with a gun to negotiate with.

There’s a saying that my colleagues and I have about South Sudan: it can always get worse. As difficult as my job is, I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am based in the capital, Juba. Many of my aid- worker friends live and work in remote locations where they don’t have regular showers, let alone a hot cup of coffee in the morning.


To donate to World Vision's South Sudan appeal, click here or call 01908 841 000

To donate to Christian Aid's South Sudan appeal, click here or call 0207 523 2493

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