South Sudanese Catholic Priest Returns to Minister in the Land of His Abduction
Father Charles Mbikoyo, who has been studying in Rome for a few years, is about to go back to his homeland to give hope and support to his people, traumatized by decades of war, and rehabilitate other former child soldiers.
The scourge of children in the military has been endemic in the world’s war zones in recent decades — as Father Charles Mbikoyo knows from painful firsthand experience.
While UNICEF recently raised the alarm about the extent of the phenomenon in South Sudan, with more than 6,000 children abducted since the beginning of the civil war in 2013 (and UNICEF also warning that the COVID-19 health crisis may worsen their situation), this issue is far from being new in this African country.
During the previous conflict that tore apart the population, from 1983 to 2005, the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) already widely used children to swell their ranks in their fight against the northern central Sudanese government, a protracted struggle that would later result in the independence of South Sudan.
Among the very first children forcibly conscripted by SPLA was a young Charles Mbikoyo who, in 1989, had just started his second year at the minor seminary of Rimenze, in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, Western Equatoria, when, in the middle of the night, the rebels surrounded the building.
Then 13, Mbikoyo was gripped by an unspeakable fear when the men ordered the 40 seminarians and their rector, Father Matthew Samusa, to open the door.
“We initially refused to open it but they threatened us to destroy the building if we didn’t comply,” he remembered during an interview with the Register. “So, when we did, they told us to come out one by one and they took us to the bush.”
This is how their ordeal began. Under the threat of being shot dead if they tried to escape, they walked uninterruptedly from morning to evening for three months from Rimenze to Yei, a strategic city near the borders with Uganda and Congo, undergoing ruthless military training along the way.
“We learned how to fight, how to shoot and dodge bullets,” he said. “Most of the time, we had no food and had to eat the fruits that we could find in the forest, and we slept on the floor, under trees.”
Added Father Mbikoyo , “They would force us to train until exhaustion, beating us, lashing us if we didn’t jump well or committed a mistake during the training process.”
While Yei was meant to be the main theater of war for the rebels, who wanted to use the children to capture neighboring villages, the priest said the young seminarians were caught in the middle of numerous clashes with the government army during their journey, and forced to fight and even to fire on soldiers.
Divine Light in Darkness
“We were surrounded by violence, cruelty, crossfire, and screams, and I lost hope of surviving, of seeing my parents again, of getting education and becoming a priest,” Father Mbikoyo continued, revealing that his parents also had lost hope of seeing him again and even celebrated a funeral for him in his hometown of Ezo.
But as he was plunged into darkness, at the mercy of lost souls who saw guns as their only instrument of communication, he finally found out that he had inside an invincible light — that of his faith in a God of love. When he thought that everything was lost, the divine embrace reached him through the rector of his seminary, who had refused to be set free by the rebels in order to stay beside his flock.
“He gave us so much comfort and kept saying that if God chose us to become priests, then he would make sure that we would become priests and not soldiers,” Father Mbikoyo said.
He said he is convinced that it is God who guided him through the bush when he escaped one morning, right before getting to Yei, together with four other children. He said it was God again who helped them to safely cross two rivers — despite a heavy current and the presence of hostile aquatic animals — to finally get to the church of Yei.
“We met people along the way, and they told us the direction, one person after the other, until we arrived in the city and told the bishop what happened,” Father Mbikoyo said. “I thought I would die fighting but God had a plan, he protected us and helped us go back home.”
Exile to Central African Republic and Uganda
This faith rooted in his heart would be for him a solid anchor amid the new trials he would have to face in later years. Indeed, young Charles and his fellow seminarians practically spent their whole education path escaping the SPLA rebels.
One month after he resumed his training at the minor seminary of Yei, the rebels attacked the place again, although this time, the children could escape in time.
“After that, the Red Cross brought us back home and the bishop of Yambio moved the seminary from Rimenze to nearby Nzara so that the rebels couldn’t find us, but unfortunately, they attacked us again. So this time, we left the country and went to Central African Republic, whose border was two days away walking,” Father Mbikoyo said.
That was in 1991. He spent three years there, before being sent to Uganda to continue his education, initially in Koboko, near the border with Sudan, until conflict erupted there too. He then went to Hoima, where he finished secondary school.
“Between 1990 and 1998, because of the war that was raging in many parts of this African region, I couldn’t see my family even once,” Father Mbikoyo said.
After the civil war in Sudan ended, he was finally ordained a priest near his hometown, in 2007, in a climate of relative peace. Father. Mbikoyo then became the rector of the minor seminary of Yambio, before his bishop sent him to Rome in 2013, to study philosophy at the Pontifical Urban University.
Sower of Hope
After the Second Sudanese Civil War ended in 2005, a new internal conflict triggered by a political struggle between President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar spread throughout South Sudan from 2013 to 2020.
Just like for the previous war, the South Sudanese Civil War was not without its fair share of atrocities committed against the population, which was alternately the victim of killings, campaigns of sexual violence or starvation.
A 2016 report by UNICEF documented that more than 17,000 children had been used in conflict since 2013.
“Although the war is officially over now, there is still a climate of violence prevailing in many parts of the country, and there are still groups in the bush,” Father Mbikoyo stated.
Moreover, the period of peace in the country, that extended from 2005 to 2013, didn’t stop his father from being kidnapped by rebels coming from nearby Uganda in 2008. He miraculously escaped by pretending to be dead after they beat him. In 2019 came the turn of his brother — an employee of the Christian organization World Vision — who was captured in an ambush near Tombura and was released thanks to an intervention of the international community.
“In South Sudan, we’ve witnessed so many wars. … There are people who were born amidst war, grew up with war, fought the war, and died surrounded by war, without tasting any moment of peace, without any possibility to live a good life,” Father Mbikoyo said.
As he has finished the studies of philosophy he has been carrying out in Rome, the Sudanese priest, now 46, is about to go back to his hometown at the end of May to serve the local population, still deeply traumatized by these years of bloody wars.
Remembering that the last time he visited his family from Rome in 2017, he almost fell in a roadside ambush —and was, once again, miraculously saved by the intervention of soldiers who uncovered the ambush a few minutes before he got there — Father Mbikoyo didn’t hide his apprehension.
“We’re all afraid of violence, and I’m afraid too, as I’m heading back home,” he said. “But as a priest, my life was already given to God, so I must go back, bring peace and give hope to those who are suffering, and preach to them — that’s my mission.”
One of his first priorities will be, understandably, the rehabilitation of the former child soldiers who were liberated at the end of the war and whose fates remain, for hundreds of them, highly uncertain.
“Suffering is engraved in the heart of these children,” the former child soldier said. “But thanks to my own experience, and with God’s help, I will be able to help them and bring their mind back.”