Life Amid War: Peace Comes in the Form of South Sudan’s Churches
The world’s newest nation is majority-Christian and fraught with violence — and the Church holds the keys to making peace a reality.
JUBA, South Sudan — “If we die, we die with these people.”
Amid the screams and constant crackle of gunfire outside the Don Bosco compound in Gumbo, South Sudan, the priests, religious and lay staff made their decision: They would stay with the 20,000 people who had sought refuge behind their gates to the very end.
Father Shyjan Job and his fellow Salesian priests said their last prayers and prepared themselves to meet God. All that stood between them and death by the machete’s swing or the AK-47’s spray of bullets on the evening of July 10 was the chain-link fence and an iron gate encircling their church, their school and adjacent buildings.
“It was a real moment of grace,” said Father Job, recalling the decision of the council they held that night as terror approached amid the encroaching darkness.
The priest, who has spent 10 years in South Sudan, had just returned from a visit to the United States days before fighting broke out between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and the opposition, led by Vice President Riek Machar.
The battle that shattered the cease-fire of South Sudan’s civil war began in Juba on the morning of July 7. Opposition forces later retreated east, across the White Nile, pursued by government soldiers. Before them, a host of civilians fled the city for their lives, desperate to escape the butchery, rape and wanton destruction that characterized the worst of the civil war.
By the evening of July 10, the war came to the village of Gumbo.
Father Job told the Register that, at first, he and his fellow Salesians thought they just heard the sound of firecrackers — South Sudan’s Independence Day was just a day before. But then they heard a scream. And bursts of gunfire — the crackle of AK-47s — seemed to erupt from everywhere, followed by more screaming. Then tens, hundreds and thousands of scared people came running for their lives to the church, desperate to escape the crossfire of death between the government and rebel factions.
The Salesians opened the gates of the compound and ushered people inside. Father Job said they moved the altar to make room for people to stay in the church, which has a capacity for 600 worshippers, cramming 2,000 in its walls. They also filled the classrooms and every building with people, gathering the remaining people in the courtyard. Nearly 20,000 souls sought the Church’s protection — most were women and children.
For nearly three hours, the sounds of battle raged outside. By 10pm, Father Job said, the shooting stopped. Throughout the night, he wondered if they would live to see morning.
“All of us were ready to face death,” he said.
That same evening, the cease-fire was declared.
The morning of July 11 showed the church compound and those found within its gates saved from destruction and death. Those people caught in the fighting outside the church had been killed. Homes had been looted or destroyed.
Neither the Don Bosco mission in Gumbo, nor any of the churches or facilities throughout South Sudan had been touched in the fighting, Father Job added, a sign of the respect the Church commands in this Christian country.
The Gates of Life
The Church — meaning the Catholic Church and all of South Sudan’s Christian churches — commands universal respect and credibility with South Sudanese, according to John Ashworth, special adviser to the South Sudan Council of Churches.
Ashworth has spent 33 years of his life in South Sudan, living through both South Sudan’s war of independence against Sudan and the South Sudanese civil war. He told the Register that if governments and their people want to help South Sudan achieve peace, they have to work with the Church. No other institution in the country has the influence and moral authority that the South Sudanese churches possess.
The Church has stayed with the people through their most brutal periods of fighting, in the years since the British pulled out in 1956. Ashworth explained that other institutions at home and abroad either failed or abandoned the South Sudanese, but the Church did not.
“The churches, to a large extent, reflect the voice of the people,” he said. “We have to urge people to listen to that voice.”
The tragedy of the civil war, he explained, was that South Sudan’s fight for independence had neglected the task of nation-building and crafting a national vision. The South Sudanese had not reconciled the deep divisions between rebel groups that went back to the 1990s. Like many countries that gained independence — such as the United States, Ireland, Pakistan or Kosovo — the unresolved issues broke out into civil war.
Right now, the Church is focused on mobilizing its resources, with the backing of the Vatican, to implement an “action plan for peace” at the very moment that the opposition and government are mobilizing their forces.
Ashworth said the plan involves all levels of South Sudanese society and complements the official negotiations. The plan’s main feature involves conducting a grassroots reconciliation process where people can meet in safe, neutral forums guaranteed by the Church. They want the different stakeholders in South Sudan to come together, build trust and address the root causes of the conflict.
The plan will heavily involve women, traditionally the “great peacemakers” in South Sudanese society, who suffer the most amid conflict. They also have a great ability to mobilize themselves and their communities and exert influence in this patriarchal society.
Ultimately, the culture and habits of war that developed over 60 years have to be unlearned, Ashworth explained. Right now, South Sudan has no infrastructure and little work beyond cattle herding. South Sudan has oil, but the market’s current prices make oil more costly to pump than to sell. Added to this mix is a large pool of young civilian men who are tough, armed and have nothing to do — until someone gets killed.
South Sudan is an honor-based culture with a history of revenge killing — when fighting breaks out between individuals, it soon leads to fighting between tribes. But people follow their leaders: The question is whether the leaders will follow the Church to commit to peace.
“If we can’t solve this, I don’t know who can,” Ashworth said.
Memories of Beauty
Even with its suffering, South Sudan is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people.
“It’s the kind of beauty you can’t put in your suitcase,” said Jerry Farrell, South Sudan’s country representative for Catholic Relief Services. “You just have to remember it.”
The White Nile flows through Juba, teeming with birds, crocodiles and hippos. Amid the Nile’s floating islands, the fishermen catch 70- to 80-pound Nile perch in the early morning.
Jebel Juba, an 800-foot mountain, stands to one side of the capital. The rain falls six to eight months out of the year on land rich in gold, oil and lush fields populated with cattle and the second-largest migration of wild animals in the world, just after the Serengeti migrations. Catholic Relief Services has worked in South Sudan since the 1970s. Farrell juggles a staff of nearly 600 international and South Sudanese employees and has to find a fine, diplomatic balance among all the ethnic groups, given the tensions in the country.
But the South Sudanese, who comprise 65 different ethnic groups, Farrell said, have “the most beautiful faces I ever encountered.” When his staff comes together for a party, many share the beautiful songs and dances of their ethnic groups. Those moments show what South Sudan could be in peace — the joy they can bring to people keeps Farrell and others going in the face of the brutality that they have witnessed.
“The greatest need in South Sudan is peace, and the second is education,” Farrell said. “This is what communities tell us, and I agree with them.”
South Sudan’s humanitarian issues are chronic: 5 million people are “food insecure,” and cholera outbreaks — a thing of the past in 21st-century modern medicine — are devastating here.
Through CRS, he said, communities in South Sudan have been building slowly the infrastructure needed for peace. They set up savings and loans programs so that South Sudanese can start their own businesses and get their products to markets. They help farmers improve livestock and fishing. Most of CRS’ food programs are designed to incentivize people to build needed infrastructure: Once the people complete a project for their community — such as building a road — food is distributed.
“The only thing we don’t do is education or health,” Farrell said. But they are building latrines and boring wells for drinking in a number of Catholic schools in Juba. CRS has also helped the local Church develop a strategic partnership with the Church in Ethiopia to improve South Sudan’s Catholic schools and health facilities.
Another critical aspect of CRS’ work: reconciliation for peace programs and programs meant to de-escalate conflicts and abandon the tradition of revenge killing, something far more devastating now than in the past, due to the ubiquitous AK-47 and other modern weapons.
“Where we’ve had conflict-mitigation programs in place in communities for a number of years, there is still killing, but it’s not 120 people [at a time]; it might be two people,” Farrell said. “So it’s a measured victory, but it’s a victory nonetheless.”
CRS also works with Solidarity With South Sudan, the umbrella group for the religious orders working in the country, to provide trauma counseling, food, shelter and water to newly displaced people.
“The entire population is beyond PTSD,” Farrell said, “due to decades of war.” One day, during a traffic jam in Juba, he witnessed a slender, mentally ill man with herculean strength just twisting off the side-view mirrors of passing cars. Unable to twist the side-view mirror from Farrell’s vehicle, he simply broke it. In his rear-view mirror, Farrell watched the man continue down the line of cars. Suddenly a group of men emerged, seized the man and beat him severely — most likely to death.
The sheer brutality of the act shocked Farrell.
“I kept telling myself, ‘That guy should have been in one of our programs,’” he said. “I thought I had seen it all, and I obviously haven’t.”
But the hope of what South Sudan could be, and the moments of joy that they do have, pushes Farrell and his colleagues forward. Often, joy comes from helping families expand businesses or farms, or seeing rural women graduate from literacy programs. Occasionally, joy comes in distributing a couple hundred soccer balls to help remind children that there is more to life than working the fields and warfare. Those moments make all their sorrows feel like “bumps in the road.”
“It makes all the little bumps in the road bearable,” he said. “You can bring moments of joy to children and their families — there’s nothing quite like it.”
Power of Prayer
More than a month has passed since the July 11 cease-fire, and 7,000 people remain in the Don Bosco mission compound. Father Job said they were too afraid to return to their homes, or they no longer have homes to return to.
“Fear of violence is still in the air,” he said.
They are just a few of the million South Sudanese uprooted from their homes in their own country. Another million have fled to other countries as refugees.
But where the Church is, there is hope. Father Job said that, after the cease-fire was declared, he sent an email to EWTN (the Register’s parent company), asking for prayers. The next day, the president renewed peace negotiations.
“We can feel the power of prayer,” he said. The letters they have received from their fellow Catholics abroad have encouraged them greatly.
“We need a lot of prayer to stop this violence,” he said. “The country should have peace and stability.”
Until then, the Church continues to minister to the people side-by-side, sharing in everything. Right now, they are trying to help families who became separated from their children in the flight from Juba.
“We are still searching for them.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.