South Sudan, located in the heart of Africa, is the youngest nation in the world; it gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. Two years later, a civil war broke out, pitting the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against the opposition; the conflict has since become a brutal tribal war. The “Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan,” signed by both factions in August 2015, brought but temporary peace, with fighting flaring up again since last summer. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens of South Sudan suffer hunger and are caught in the fighting. The UN estimates that there are 1.7 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the country, 75 percent of whom are struggling to survive in the three states hardest-hit by conflict, Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei.
Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity, recently spoke with a pastoral worker in South Sudan who, preferring to remain anonymous, explains the roots of the crisis and describes the plight of the people.
By Maria Lozano for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)
ACN: Can you describe the political situation in South Sudan?
The president part (SPLA) has won the battle against the former vice-president; he represents one main tribe in South Sudan. The situation is very complex, as various tribes have gotten caught up in the fighting and several tribes are being brutally suppressed by the army, which considers them to be “rebels.” The army is responsible for the killing of innocent civilians and the destruction of homes. The region has a complex history, marked by many wars. South Sudan, which is mostly Christian, broke away from Sudan, which is mostly Islamic. Also, the local traditional tribal culture has not yet had the benefit of economic, social and political development.
What role does tribal culture play in the conflict?
There is the mentality that holds that the tribe is the most important social unit, and that individual lives have to serve the tribes, as directed by councils of elders, even today. Many tribes coexist in South Sudan, fighting for cows as symbols of power and wealth. Conflict has never been rooted in hate or genocide; the pursuit of wealth was the cause of any fighting. In short, the people of South Sudan lack a sense of national identity. Their allegiance to their tribe comes first—and that often leads to conflict.
What is happening today, however, is that the leaders of different tribes fight, not for cows, but for political power and money (e.g. oil, timber, minerals). These elites care more for their own advantage than for the well-being of the people, many of whom are starving; inflation in the country has hit 800 percent!
Perhaps the worst aspect of the conflict is that tribal leaders present their struggle for political and economic power as an ethnic conflict—which it is definitely not. The members of different tribes don’t hate each other; they are traumatized by endless wars and conflict; they want a peaceful society, but the ambition of their leaders is obstacles to peace.
What is the impact of the conflict on ordinary citizens?
Ordinary people are suffering in many ways: first, they have to leave their lands when conflict erupts; they lose all their possessions—cattle, homes, land. They become IDPs or they flee the country to become refugees. In either case, they are forced to live in camps where there is lack of food and water; where there are no schools—where, in short, there is no future. Ordinary life cannot proceed—the people are in survival mode. Most of the families have lost loved ones in the fighting; some have been recruited by force, even children; women suffer rape and violence, and then are stigmatized because of being violated. The inflation is so high that people almost cannot buy anything, making them completely dependent on international aid, which is not sufficient. There is a grave shortage of medical care, in particular, and there are growing number of deaths among the elderly, women and children.
There are some who have used the term “ethnic cleansing.” Is that appropriate?
Again, there is no ethnic hate among the people of different tribes; but animosity is caused by the actions of the leaders of the country, or, sometimes, by the desire for revenge after so much suffering. A local tribe that suffers attacks by the army—with most soldiers belonging to a different tribe—will naturally react and enter into what then appears to be an ethnic conflict.
Could you mention particular incidents you are particularly moved by?
Two workers at one of our projects—targeted as alleged rebels because they didn’t want to join the army by force, nor surrender—were tortured and burned alive inside their small “tukuls” (houses). This happened a few weeks ago. With a local church as a base, we are assisting more than 3000 people who have escaped their homes fearing the same fate. In another community, only the houses of the people belonging to a particular tribe—other than the tribe to which local leaders belong—were looted and destroyed; their owners lost all they had. Burned out homes and dead bodies are common sights in South Sudan.
What is the work you are doing in the country?
We are in South Sudan to empower people, enabling them to build a more just and peaceful society. We work with the local Catholic Church—training teachers, nurses, midwives, and agricultural workers. We are also training pastoral agents, to prepare them for the work of evangelization, as well as peace-building and reconciliation efforts.
We also operate student centers. They come from different tribes and they live and study together peacefully—building a mentality of unity among themselves as a bulwark against ethnic hatred. These students become part of international communities, which include men and women religious, people from a variety of cultures. The result is a living witness that unity and fraternity are possible in South Sudan. We provide the students not only with an academic and professional formation, but also with a human and spiritual formation that can help bring real change to the country.
How the conflict has affected your work?
The conflict has affected us in different ways: we all are experiencing a great deal of stress because of the situation of insecurity. Our own community has suffered attacks from different factions; there even has been a case of rape. We have been robbed and were forced to shut down one of our mission stations. It is very difficult to find food and to get cash to pay for goods, which, again, h have gotten so very expensive. We have to increase security measures by installing permanent lighting and the building of walls and to organized the students’ formation programs in such a way that students go home only once, to avoid dangers on the open road and the high cost of travelling. It is proving harder to replace members of our communities who leave because of all the danger. But we remain committed to serve the people of South Sudan to the best of our abilities because it is our mission and vocation.
Since its independence, ACN has supported projects in South Sudan for more than 4 million Euros. The help went to pastoral aid, Mass stipends, the building of Church infrastructure, urgent help and subsistence aid.