It was very striking to Fr. Jesus Aranda, the new parish priest of Kajo keji Sacred Heart parish in South Sudan, to see a continuous stream of people carrying their belongings towards the border of Uganda. He went to visit them.
Why have 50,000 people of the Kajo keji District, maybe more, left their homes?
Among the many reasons for them to flee their homes and become refugees in Uganda is the fact that there is mass insecurity and sporadic fighting around their villages. The spreading of rumours that they would be attacked by armed groups opposing the government of South Sudan has also been a catalyst. These kind of tactics were used in the surrounding areas of Yei town, forcing people to leave until the small towns and villages remained empty. Moreover, most people felt that the presence of the South Sudan Army around their villages would make them feel unsafe.
As a result, this has created a lot of fear and uncertainty, as they thought opposing forces would soon engage in fighting and that they could be exposed to danger. Women were particularly worried that soldiers would rape them and loot their properties, as it has happened in other places, and they would ultimately fear death.
On top of that, the terrible economic crisis that the country is facing has also affected them. They hoped international organisations would help and intervene in the Ugandan refugee camps providing some relief, such as food and education.
Facing this challenging reality head on, and after consulting and listening to some of Kajo Keji residents, the local Comboni Community welcomed the initiative to pay a visit to these new refugee camps in Uganda, located not too far from Kajo Keji border. The community encouraged the parish priest and a catechist to hold a pastoral visit, which would also help them gain a great understanding and knowledge of the situation. A Comboni Sister in Lomin also joined the visiting team.
Sr. Margaret Wamaru from the Comboni Sisters, the Head-catechist Mr. Robert, and the parish priest, Fr. Jesus Aranda, set out on a journey to northern Uganda on the 9th January 2017. The visiting team met thousands of refugees, many of whom had known the pastoral team before.
Moving around on foot with the refugees to see the situation they were living in, the team arrived at the location where children and other young people were registering for kindergarten, primary and senior schools. Within a few days, more than 4,000 students had been registered. People were very happy to see the visitors and the Catholic refugees said that there were many others in the camp. They showed the team a big tree where they hold their prayers.
The visiting pastoral team found the reality of the South Sudanese refugees in northern Ugandan camps incredibly painful and frustrating. People are trying hard to settle down and have been assisted with some food items, such as maize, sorghum, beans and cooking oil. Yet, they are still living in a very poor condition. Their shelters are made of plastic sheets, which become very hot in the middle of the day. They get a limited amount of water, which is 20 litres per family and food is just enough to feed a family.
The Comboni missionaries are convinced that the refugees cannot be left as a people without a ‘shepherd’. Closeness to the ‘poorest and most abandoned people’ is part of the evangelisation mission of the Comboni Missionaries. Kajo keji’s pastoral team sees this eventual pastoral presence among suffering refugees as a sign of hope and real presence of the loving God among them. They rely on prayers and support to continue this mission of love, mercy and hope among the northern Uganda refugees.