CHURCHES in Juba became places of refuge from gunfire this week, after the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence was stained with bloodshed.
A clash between rival military factions on Thursday was followed by a confrontation outside the presidential compound, where the President, Salva Kiir, and his recent rival, now Vice-President, Riek Machar, were meeting. The bodies of soldiers were found on the lawn. The fighting spread throughout the city, resulting in the death of 272 people, including 33 civilians, government figures suggested. On Tuesday, the UN reported that the ceasefire appeared to be “largely holding, barring sporadic gunfire”. An estimated 36,000 people have been displaced, many of them children.
Thousands sought sanctuary in church compounds, the General Secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches, Fr James Oyet Latansio, reported this week. He had himself had to take cover to avoid flying bullets.
Anglican Bishops expressed hope that the ceasefire announced by Mr Kiir on Monday would take hold. His order that government troops “disengage” was echoed by Mr Machar.
The Bishop of Kajo-Keji, the Rt Revd Anthony Poggo, said that the UN’s mission (UNMISS) must now fulfill its mandate to protect civilians. There was a need for a “professional and national army that has a national outlook rather than have an army that has allegiance to ethnic leaderships”, he said.
Quoting Matthew 5.9, he called on all South Sudanese to be “peacemakers and not peace spoilers”, and to shun revenge, which was “promoted” by some cultures in the country.
A statement from the Roman Catholic bishops of South Sudan, issued last month, lamented the country’s “militaristic culture”, in which money was spent on arms rather than basic services. The current Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was “not the same army which protected and liberated us between 1983 and 2005. We are deeply concerned that many of these armed men appear to be poorly disciplined, poorly trained, poorly led, poorly educated militia, preying on the population, rather than a disciplined force protecting the people. . . We urge the formation of a single professional national army that we can be proud of.”
The Bishop of Wau, the Rt Revd Moses Deng, suggested on Wednesday that the current fighting would not escalate as it had in 2013 “because the strength of the two armies fighting is not equal”.
He had warned, before Independence Day, on Saturday, that “fighting may break out in celebration”, and argued that “there is nothing to celebrate really, when South Sudanese are dying in large numbers from hunger, insecurity, diseases. I believe many South Sudanese feel that this is not the South Sudan they fought and voted for.”
His own diocese has been the scene of bloodshed in recent weeks. At least 43 people were killed after fighting between the SPLA and armed groups in Wau town, and surrounding areas, on 24 June. Up to 120,000 people were displaced.
Despite the signing of a peace agreement in August, designed to end the conflict that erupted in 2013, and the formation of a Transitional Government of National Unity in April, violence has persisted in the world’s youngest country. The Bishop of Rejaf, the Rt Revd Enoch Tombe, said on Monday that about 1000 people were taking shelter in All Saints’ Cathedral.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has called for an immediate arms embargo, additional sanctions on those blocking implementation of the peace deal, and fortification of the UN mission in the country.
On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury appealed for peace. The Church in South Sudan continues to play an active part in efforts towards reconciliation (News, 21 August). “We need to encourage people as South Sudanese rather than taking ethnicity in a negative sense,” Bishop Poggo said. “We need to appreciate our ethnic groups, but remember that we are all made in the image of God.”
Bishop Deng reports that the South Sudan Council of Churches sent a team of church leaders to Wau, where they were “well received by everyone”, including the government and displaced people. But, he said, “there is still a perception that certain churches belong to certain communities, which we really need to work on, so that people see the Church as a neutral body.”
Up to 4.8 million people face severe food shortages in the coming months — the highest level since internal conflict broke out in 2013, the UN said last month. An estimated 100,000 people have recently fled the country, and inflation is approaching 300 per cent.
World Vision South Sudan’s Policy, Advocacy and Peacebuilding Adviser, Jeremiah Young, warned this week that people in Juba were starving.
The charity’s staff, who had been forced to “hibernate” in recent days, “want to get out to deliver aid as soon as the security situation is deemed safe”.