Fr. Salvatore Pacifico, an Italian Comboni Missionary in South Sudan, will turn 81 in November. “Missionary in North and South Sudan for 40 years”, writes Fr. Salvatore, “I find it difficult to speak of what is going on in South Sudan. I would not want to contribute to that feeling of defeatism, already common when people speak of Africa. South Sudan is still in God’s hands, the hands of a father”. His reflection follows.
Independence Day, July 9, 2011. I was in Raga, a town in South Sudan approximately 950 kilometres from Juba, the capital and largest city in the country, celebrating the event together with tens of thousands of jubilant people. We were finally free after 40 years of war, with unspeakable sufferings. Millions of people had lost their lives. The others, at different times, had to leave their homes and flee elsewhere. Many of them went to the North, or to neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Central Africa and Congo.
For almost two years, South Sudan breathed this air of freedom and enthusiasm. People were returning home and had generously begun to rebuild.
December 2013. It only took one night. From the balcony of the second floor of Comboni House in Moroyok, about 8 miles from the centre of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, one sees a series of tents where 40 thousand internally displaced people (IDP) live. It’s the first thing I saw when I opened the door of my room.
It was four years ago. It all started at the end of 2013 and it only took that one night. On that night, the President suspected that his second in command was planning a coup. His men swung into action immediately and on that night in Juba they cruelly killed all the people of the vice president’s tribe they could find. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands fled. During the following few hours, two UN army bases turned into IDP camps. There were about 80 thousand people, mostly Nuer, the vice president tribe. Thousands more fled elsewhere and many headed abroad. The important thing was to save one’s life.
This happened in Juba, but within a few days all the areas inhabited by the Nuer were involved. In time, the total number of refugees, both abroad and internally, reached three million, with one million in Uganda alone. Entire villages were wiped off the map.
It took the international community two years to talk the two factions into beginning to seek an agreement leading to a government of national unity, and another year to transition from a paper document to reality. The agreement was more imposed than assumed. In 2016, the two sides got together again in Juba, with one government, but with each of the two sides clearly separate, each with its own army and general headquarters. The president, Salva Kiir being a Dinka, and the vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer. They sat next to each other, but the reconciliation of spirits had not taken place. All it took was a spark, and violence erupted again in July.
In Juba alone, thousands died and there was a lot of destruction. Once again, the vice president and some of his faithful were able to get escape.
Today, more than a year later, despite the many proposals for reconciliation, a solution has yet to be found. Worse, the war which had been limited to the areas occupied by the Dinka and the Nuer, has been artificially extended to the rest of the country. In practice, all the regions were forced to align themselves with one of the two factions or to create their own militia.
In every place where you find a UN contingent, a refugee camp has sprung up. In many places, especially in Wau, people have taken refuge in the churches. The entirety of South Sudan is at war and there is a general lack of security. Travel is always risky because attacks, accompanied by killings and destruction, are a daily occurrence. Reconciliation proposals abound, but there is always something suspicious.
In the area of Kajo-Kaji, in Equatoria, the entire population has fled to Uganda and the thriving mission of Lomin, with its church, school and social centers, has been abandoned because the missionary have gone to Uganda with their people. One has the impression that the people responsible for this situation have not yet understood its seriousness, being more concerned with their own interests and the interests of their group rather than in the common good.
Having been a missionary in Sudan – North and South – for 40 years, I find it difficult to speak of what is going on in South Sudan. I would not want to contribute to that feeling of defeatism already common when people speak of Africa. Unfortunately, this is a story that has been repeated too often and not only in Africa. Europe has gone through it as well. Pope Francis has often expressed the desire to personally go to South Sudan and show to the South Sudanese that the Church is close to them. He has even agreed with the Anglicans and the Presbyterians that they would go together.
The Comboni Missionaries have left three of their mission stations to go and live with their people as they run for their lives, in total solidarity. Our suffering becomes solidarity and prayer. In the communion of saints, we carry the cross together, while we trustfully await the announcement of the resurrection, which will definitely arrive. South Sudan is still in God’s hands, the hands of a father.
– Father Salvatore Pacifico