Not even religious buildings have been spared from the destruction of the war which broke out two years ago in South Sudan. As the ceasefire between government and rebels teeters, the missionaries continue to stand by the population: “God will not abandon us”.
Months of negotiations and nine separate signed agreements have not been enough to bring peace to war-torn South Sudan. Despite the fact that a ceasefire has officially been in place since August, South Sudan continues to be a nation at war – two years after the first clashes broke out between soldiers who are loyal to President Salva Kiir and the rebels who have sided with his former deputy, Riek Machar. The conflict has seen many different opponents clash; cities switching sides on more than one occasion; thousands of deaths – it is impossible to say how many exactly; and 2.4 million people forced to flee, some abroad, some to other parts of the country.
From Juba, the capital, Father Daniele Moschetti witnessed the conflict begin and then spread through the country. No one was spared. Not civilians, not women or children, not the Churches that had stood by the population for decades, when another conflict was still underway – the one that led to the secession of Sudan and the creation of the new nation. The Churches continued their silent presence during the latest hostilities. “In Ayod, my confrères followed the people when the city was completely destroyed in an attack,” Father Moschetti explains. The priest is Superior of the Comboni Missionaries and President of the Association of South Sudanese Religious Superiors. He goes on to say: “However, the army was not able to take Old Fangak, and so it became a meeting place for the displaced. But it is those of us in Leer who have to pay the highest price for the war”. Leer, the city in Unity State, was attacked and occupied twice, which led to the withdrawal not only of missionaries but also of humanitarian organisations. “All that’s left standing are the walls of the houses. We spent seven years trying to set up a professional training centre, a technical school for young people. But in the space of just a few days, everything was gone… this kind of thing throws people into a crisis,” Moschetti admits.
The past few weeks have shown that fighting factions don’t even stop when religious structures are involved. A house built as part of the Solidarity with South Sudan project, which was home to a group of nuns, was attacked and looted at the end of December. There was a tone of disbelief in the Comboni Superior’s voice: “Values lost their meaning some time ago. There have been various attacks over the past years and the degree of violence reached is indescribable; to the point that brothers have turned on each other.” The priest’s story is peppered with the names of the populations that have joined the two sides: the Dinka people, the Nuer, the Zande and the Shilluk. The situation he describes is still critical. Indeed, peace negotiations have stalled once again: although agreement was reached over the new interim government, now there is division over the local administrative reorganisation that President Kiir is keen to go ahead with. Meanwhile, in the state of Western Equatoria, where peace has reigned so far, clashes have started to break out, driving hundreds of people to flee, mainly towards Uganda. The UN estimates the number of refugees at around 15,000.
“We are also asking ourselves how it got to this,” the priest said. “The violence also stems from a lack of respect for others: the areas where the most serious incidents took place are those where the world’s lowest levels of education are recorded. In conditions like these, when such violent forces are unleashed, it is impossible to control them.” The Church has therefore focused its efforts on building peace from the bottom up, starting where they can: in displaced persons’ camps, in parishes, and even in prisons. There are around 60 professionals who have been trained in these communities to work on methods for treating people who have suffered war traumas, and to train others who can continue their work. A specialist centre should also be established in Juba soon to help achieve these goals. “It is a monumental task,” Moschetti admits, “that will take years, if not decades; and starting from scratch is never easy. As missionaries, however, we remind our predecessors that they should never lose hope in the new generations. Political leaders come and go, but the Lord holds the reins of history: God does not abandon us.”