The people of South Sudan have suffered from the ravages of war far beyond their share. The country gained its independence from the North in 2011 after a 21-year-old civil war and continues to suffer due to a power struggle between its leaders. In their immense drama, people could always count on the support of missionaries and the international community through its development and relief agencies
The five-year-old country is in the throes of poverty and uncertainty. Its hope of a viable future has been mainly assured by the massive presence of the international community. One can see it upon arrival at Juba airport: the great majority of the aeroplanes parked along the tarmac belong to the United Nations agencies and the international NGOs. The building of the so-much needed new airport is unfinished because, according to rumours, the money disappeared more than once in the past. All the internal flights are assured by the World Food Programme.
The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is composed of 13 490 uniformed personnel, and more than one thousand civilians on the ground to keep the security of the IDP camps, the UN operations and to monitor the mechanisms envisioned by the peace agreements. Additionally, more than one hundred international NGOs are present giving humanitarian and development assistance. The presence of such a great contingent of foreigners makes the city the most expensive in the world after Luanda.
The country is “going backwards”, according to various testimonies. Its capital, Juba, from a town of some 60 000 people swelled to more than one million. Its streets are full of potholes and are not recommendable for small cars. There’s no electricity and at night it is a dark city. Only those who can afford generators or solar panels can have light. Petrol is also scarce even though South Sudan is an oil-producing country. It doesn’t have refineries: the crude oil leaves through the pipelines leading to Port Sudan and enters refined through the port of Mombasa, in Kenya, more than 1 600 km away. Drivers spend hours and even days to fill the tanks of their vehicles. The streets are full of people selling petrol in litre bottles.
The only reference and hope. The main reason for the gruesome situation of instability and suffering is the power struggle between its main leaders, President Salva Kiir, and up to the beginning of July his first Vice-President, Riek Machar, both belonging to the two main ethnic groups, respectively Dinka and Nuer. The upheaval between the forces loyal to each one of them at the beginning of July, might have killed more than one thousand people and left a few more hundred thousand internally displaced and refugees—after that, Machar left Juba invoking security reasons; Salva Kiir set a deadline for him return and continue implementing the peace agreement; after only 48 hours, he replaced him with General Taban Deng Gai, belonging also to the SPLM-IO. It is uncertain how the situation will evolve given the fact that the Dinka say they are “born to rule” and the Nuer do not like to be ruled by anyone.
Over the years, missionaries have stood by the people, enduring privations and adversities and sometimes risking their lives and not letting people lose hope. There are 360 international missionaries plus 15 South Sudanese of both genders belonging to 46 religious congregations. Fr Daniele Moschetti, the Provincial Superior of the Comboni Missionaries, says: “We are with the local Church, the only point of reference and hope for so many people traumatized and terrorised by violence and looting. People come to us and the parishes for protection when there are attacks.”
The latest episode of deadly violence (8–11 July) happened near the Comboni House in Juba which is about 800 metres from the presidential palace. The community leader, Fr Raimundo Nonato Rocha dos Santos, confesses that the fighting was scary. On the first day, they were having a Community Council when the firing began at the presidential palace. The intense and terrifying shooting went on for more than one hour. On the last day of fighting (11 July), they were having supper. The shooting went on for more than half hour. Thinking to be in the middle of a crossfire, they took shelter under the tables with the plates of food they had dished in their hands. They thought it was an attack on the President’s residence but the soldiers were just celebrating the ceasefire ordered by the President!
Missionaries are not immune to fear and fright. In a letter written after these incidents, Fr Raimundo, a Brazilian Comboni Missionary, shared the following: “In a situation of conflict and intense fighting, each person reacts in different ways. However, a common feeling is fear: fear of being physically attacked, hit by a stray bullet or a rocket, being robbed, having the house looted and destroyed—and fear of death. It’s a very human reaction.”
Mission among the underdogs. The population of South Sudan is estimated at 11.5 million, belonging to 64 tribes. Dinka are around 4 million and Nuer are 1.5 million. Generally speaking, there are few dioceses and few parishes which cover a huge area. Malakal diocese is the biggest and there are only ten parishes. Of the 10 communities the Comboni Missionaries have in South Sudan, two are in Malakal diocese among the Nuer—Old Fangak and Leer. From Juba, the flight to Leer takes one and half hours and two hours to Old Fangak.
The Nuer land was one of the focal points of the war. Unity State and Upper Nile State are the two oil-producing states on which the economy of South Sudan depends and they are Riek Machar’s stronghold. The government, with the help of the Darfurian mercenaries, prepared an attack on them at the beginning of 2014. The missionaries, Sisters, Brothers and Fathers, had to leave the mission, hide in the bush for three weeks before being evacuated (Worldwide, April-May 2014). They went back to Leer in July but they left Leer once more in May 2015 when the town was attacked again. “It was impossible to continue being there: the fight was terrible,” said Fr Fernando González. Since then, they carried on their pastoral activities from another centre, Nyal—located in a corner of the parish and is more protected by the swamps. Their aim is to return to the headquarters of the parish as soon as the situation allows them.
Leer was a town of 40 000 people; Nyal was a small village but it became a big town because many people running from the war found refuge there. Now it has 55 000 people. The mission of Leer has around 250 communities—big and small. Many are on islands. Inside the parish, they move on foot or by canoe. Before, there were a few roads but meanwhile the area became flooded and they disappeared. The road going to Bentiu is not usable because of the war.
Old Fangak, the other mission among the Nuer was not so directly affected by the war because of the swamps around it. The missionaries do not know its borders exactly. They consider the whole County as being the parish. It might be 100 km long (from north to south) and 50 km wide. There are many villages. They might have around 120 000 people spread throughout the County. They have about 60 Christian communities. There are 21 which they call centres because they are bigger communities—with a chapel and other structures—and there are the Small Christian Communities linked to each of these centres. They visit them throughout the year. The communities are led by the catechist and by the committee of people who deal with the practical things. The catechist is the prayer leader on Sunday, the teacher of catechism classes and leads the meetings.
A semi-nomadic lifestyle. Nuer live in rural areas: they don’t like living in towns because they are agriculturalists: they raise cattle and grow crops for personal use and for sale by traditional agricultural techniques. Entering a village, one sees homesteads. At the centre there’s the barn to keep the cattle; around there are a few huts and a small field for cultivation. The next family lives in another homestead at least 100 metres away. In between, there’s bush or swamps.
People are semi-nomadic because of water. They live on the higher land during the rainy season because they can farm. After the harvest, those places are not suitable because there’s no water so they need to move closer to the water points. This is a problem in developing a Christian community, because there are groups in one place only six months per year. After that, one finds nobody. Women, youth and children generally move with the cattle; men, instead, go to town and try to do business in that time. It is a population on the move and the Church must be on the move with the people. Many Nuer living in Juba are in Protection of Civilian Sites provided for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) managed by the UN since the clashes of 2013.
Even though the Combonis have been working in Sudan and South Sudan for more than 150 years, this mission among the Nuer is of recent foundation. The historic reason is that during the time of colonialism, the country was divided in two spheres of influence for the Churches. The west side of the Nile River was given to the Catholic Church; the eastern area was given to the Protestants. In the 1930s, the British brought their own officers and the pastors of the Anglican Church. They were unsuccessful in their attempt to evangelize and educate the people. The Nuer were against colonialism and they did not send their children to the schools of the colonial power. They believed that the school would spoil them. The Anglicans closed the mission. In the 1960s/70s that area was given to the American Presbyterians who in the 1980s started to have many converts.
A lay Church.The presence of the Catholic Church among the Nuer started only in the 1970s—brought by lay people who, during the first war, had run away to Khartoum, Ethiopia and Uganda and became Catholics. Coming back, they shared their Catholic faith with the others. They went to Malakal and told the bishop they had hundreds of people ready for baptism. “What shall we do?”, they asked. He told them: “In case of danger and imminence of death anyone can baptise; we are in the middle of a war, so I allow you to baptise.” This means that up to 1996 there were no baptism registers—but they remember perfectly who baptised them and where.
Fr Fernando, a Mexican Comboni Missionary working in Leer with Italian Fr Francis Chemello and Ethiopian Fr Yacob Solomon Shole says: “It is a Church which was started by lay people. Arriving in the area in 1996, we found hundreds and hundreds of communities led by lay leaders meeting in churches of grass and mud. It was a well-organised Church: there were catechists leading youth groups, the Legion of Mary and committees—a very alive Church.”
It was a family-based Church. Fr Christian Carlassare, an Italian Comboni Missionary based in Old Fangak where he works with Fr Gregor Schmidt from Germany and Fr Alfred Mawadri from Uganda, comments: “The Church in Fangak started in 1979-80, but its big expansion happened in 1989/90/91. It was a Church of lay people—they had never seen a priest there before—and the catechists started their own communities. They wanted to share the Gospel, but also to be leaders over communities: Nuer like to be leaders and they don’t like to have people over them.”
Fr Christian explained how the Comboni Missionaries came into the picture: “In 1995/96, these catechists started looking for priests. It was a Church fruit of the Spirit—it was not clerical—but they felt they needed the leadership of the Church, priests coming from outside, who were neutral and who could unite them. Some catechists travelled to Kenya and met the Comboni Missionaries through the New People Media Centre. The Combonis started visiting their place and then a mission was opened.”
The first Catholic priest that arrived there in 1997, first visiting and then staying, was Italian Comboni Missionary Fr Antonio La Braca. “It is a very young Church, pure and open to what is new. We are far from being a parish with its structures,” says Fr Christian. Then, he added about the characteristics of this mission: “It was a great occasion for us, to enter into this kind of new mission—a Church that was already there through the commitment of lay people. It was a moment of grace. In other places, there was the mission, the church, the school, the hospital and so on. Here there was a Church asking us to preach the Gospel—not to do development work. There were no structures and no colonized minds. They were open to our proposals. They were eager to receive formation and guidance.”
Building the community. Formation was the main need of the community. Fr Christian says: “This community was Catholic by name. It had been started by people who were only baptised with little instruction. It was not so different from other Churches. We needed to build the ‘catholicity’ of the community—not only giving rules about liturgy and moral life, but bringing the experience of the Catholic Church and helping them to go beyond the groups and tribes.”
Fr Christian who has been working in Old Fangak for ten years explains that the Nuer are a community of different tribes: 12 different tribes call themselves Nuer. Each tribe has its own clans. He adds: “The Church was, therefore, also much divided—in families, clans and sub-clans. Each family had its own church and wanted to be independent from the others. At the beginning, bringing catholicity there was bringing unity among them.”
People give great importance to baptism, but not to the other sacraments, the meaning of which they are not yet able to grasp. Their reasoning is: “We are Christians: we have been baptised, we have abandoned some of our old traditions and beliefs such as going to the witch, we believe in Jesus and this is what matters.”
Missionaries feel that there’s a lot of work to do to build the Christian communities. Fr Christian says: “I am engaged especially in formation—to form the leaders and catechists. They were calling themselves catechists but they were more leaders than catechists: they were not able to convey the teachings of Jesus and of the Church to their people—many had never been to school, some were not even able to read—they were just teaching the traditional Christian prayers and reporting the Bible stories as they heard them. At the beginning there was a huge work of education—helping them to read and have a certain methodology to teach the catechism and prepare the people for the sacraments.”
All their catechists—more than 500—are all volunteers and, therefore, are not paid for their job. Missionaries feel that they should continue working on a voluntary basis and should have another job to support their families. At the same time, they are trying to see if their Christian communities which are growing and understand their work might be able to support them. In Old Fangak, they set a rule that one Sunday per month, the collection should be for the catechists so that they can have a small support. It is a sign of appreciation from the community. Fr Christian says: “We are also trying to build self-supporting communities. There will always be help between Churches but we feel that a new-born Church needs to start walking on its own two feet.”
A dialogue model. Evangelization requires inculturation: meeting the local culture—the imagery of the people, what they believe—and convey what the Church believes, being aware that the two approaches can ‘dialogue’ and that there can be a good understanding in some domains. The ideal is that a catechist can draw his teaching from his own culture (about the understanding of life and of God), and also draw from the richness of the Gospel to help people grow. The challenge is enormous: Fr Christian comments: “Sometimes, I have the impression that what passes as knowledge is not so fundamental—the prayer learnt by heart without understanding the meaning of that prayer and some rules of the Church. It is a big challenge to reach the hearts of the people with what is essential in our faith that can really change their lives.”
During the conflict that erupted in 2013, many Christians joined the fighting. It is said that during this time of crisis there was a big debate in the Church: “Should we join the conflict and protect our people? Is it morally acceptable to take up arms and kill to protect the people?” Fr Christian says: “There are teachings that are understood and accepted by the people and there are other areas in which they don’t want to change such as stopping violence, respecting the others and forgiving. Defeating the enemy is considered a duty.”
Missionaries are now basically engaged in pastoral work—but they used to have in Leer a Vocational Training Centre—in computers, mechanics and electricity. There were two brothers for that. There were nursery schools. Those were the main activities in the field of education. The Sisters had programmes for women—promotion and development.
Mission in the swamps. Evangelisation is carried out through safaris. Having a large area under their care, missionaries have to plan the visits to the centres avoiding going back to the mission. They try to be in each centre for one week. Then, they move to the next, by walking some 20 km, 30 km or more, always accompanied by the youth and the people of that centre through the bushes and swamps—not to get lost. They may spend one month, one month and half out of the mission quarters, visiting the various centres.
In those safaris, they prepare the people to receive the sacraments, confess, hold workshops for the catechists and so on. War is a tragedy. Many people have been displaced. Many are hiding in the swamps. There’s a great need for healing and reconciliation, faith and hope. In Jesus, people find strength—faith gives them a lot of hope.
War also disrupted the missionaries’ work and created new needs which demand a pastoral answer. Fr Fernando, nicknamed Gatkuoth, Son of God, who had worked for nine years during the war between the South and the North says: “We have been conducting prayers and special Masses for peace and reconciliation. We have been giving workshops on trauma healing especially for the youth and organising walks for peace. We have been helping the communities overcome anger and not to lose hope.”
Travelling and living light. Catholics accompany and take care of the missionaries during the safaris. Fr Christian says: “We walk always with people. When we are in the quarters of the mission, we look after ourselves. During safaris, they take care of us. We are hosted in their own families: they give us food and what we need. If we wish, they wash our clothes, but for simplicity I prefer to wash mine. Since we travel light with our rucksack, I just prepare a change of clothes. In the evening, when I shower, I wash my own clothes so that they are dry the following day. Travelling like that, we need to carry only the essentials: a Mass kit, the Bible, any book for teaching and a mosquito net. This is a swamp area covering an area of 500 km—the famous Sudd, the biggest swamp at least in Africa—and there’s plenty of mosquitoes. When the sun goes down, that is the kingdom of mosquitoes. We need to protect ourselves. It is a malaria-prone area, but not as strong as in other areas. I am lucky that I might get only one malaria attack per year.”
Fr Fernando says that they are “in the middle of the water”. The Nile River on the area that is flat expands and creates swamps, lakes and small rivers. Life in the swamps is not so healthy. Fr Fernando says: “We have to care for our own health. Dressing well in the evening not to be bitten by mosquitoes, sleeping with the mosquito net. Malaria is a common sickness.” Fortunately, he never got it. It seems that in that area it is not as strong as in other areas of the country, such as in Lomin and Nzara.
Missionaries also need to be attentive to food and water. In many places water is not potable. There are wells but they are not deep. There’s the River Nile and, therefore, there’s plenty of water, but it is not safe. Fr Christian explains that they had the idea of drilling some boreholes but they could drill only in the town of Fangak because it was impossible to take the rig and all the material needed to the far places due to the swamps. Only in Fangak town can a very small percentage of the population drink safe water. Others drink the water of the River Nile which is better than the water they get in the swamps which is a source of bacteria and infections, especially for children, making many of them die when they are very young because of diarrhoea.
The food they eat is the food people eat. Nuer have a very simple diet. They are cattle keepers but also cultivate sorghum or dura and a little maize. The basic meal is porridge with the milk from their own cows. From birth till the age of 20 they just eat porridge and milk. Meat and fish is for the older people. Meat is a luxury because cows are not slaughtered for meat. Now they are introducing chicken and goats which are much easier to kill to have some meat. The vegetables they eat are okra, beans, pumpkins, onions and tomatoes, other kinds are not common. Fr Christian says: “We have a garden in the mission for the purpose of showing the people that many other vegetables can be cultivated to improve their diet. We realise that they are still far from getting used to all those products such as aubergines and cabbages.”
A mission not fit for all. The Nuer language is difficult because there are 16 vowels used in writing (for instance, there are three a’s, six e’s; but others are not written and are also used while speaking. It is tonal in part, but there are guttural sounds and other sounds, difficult sounds. It takes time to learn. The Nuer’s alphabet uses 39 distinct letters.
Most of the time, the missionaries are ‘unplugged’ from the world. Before the war, there was a cellphone network in Leer. Not anymore. Some NGOs have satellite internet and allow them to use it. No wonder that at the beginning of June, Fr Fernando only came to know about the death of his father the day after and could not be present at his funeral. It was painful, of course, but he faced the sad reality and decided to stay at the mission as his father would have appreciated.
Old Fangak is in a better position following the instruction of the superior of the Comboni group, Fr Daniele, who encourages them to have internet connection. Fr Christian says: “When I arrived in 2005, we were using the radio to communicate. With time, we opted for the satellite phone for emergency calls. Lately, we put up a satellite system to have access to internet. When we move to the villages there’s no way we can communicate. To communicate with our Church leaders—to inform about meetings, or about our arrival—we need to send a piece of paper and ask a youth to deliver it. It is another world compared to the advanced world of technology and communication that already exists in the cities.”
This is not an easy mission and not everybody has courage to live in such a simple and precarious situation. Fr Fernando commented: “This is our vocation. When I go there I am unplugged from the world without telephone, internet, TV, just with the communities, enjoying being with them and praying with them and working together for the Kingdom of God. When I come here to the capital, then I enjoy other things. When I am there, I do not miss the internet or telephone. I just give myself one hundred percent to people and to what I am doing. I carry a very small radio on which I can hear the news through the shortwave. Many people have radios: they hear, for instance, a programme by Radio America called Focus on South Sudan. In that way, we know what is going on in the world.”
If one is very much attached to modern gadgets and means of communication, one will find difficult to endure such a mission. Fr Christian looks at the positive aspect of not being dependent on the gadgets: “Now it is a luxury to live without a mobile phone. Life is much simpler, true and uncomplicated when we live with less means.”
The Provincial Superior confirms that the mission in South Sudan needs physical strength, because roads and other infrastructures are scarce, there is a challenging weather and little access to health services—but also psychological strength because of isolation, insecurity, uncertainty, pressure and traumas caused by the war.
The rewards are many. The difficulties are easily overcome by the generosity of the Nuer. Fr Fernando says: “The Nuer people are very good to us missionaries. They love us very much, they appreciate our presence among them, especially in these difficult moments. They do everything possible so that we may be well. They appreciate the people coming from God, the missionaries.” Fr Christian in his testimony corroborates this assessment: “We can feel a great empathy with the people and their culture.”
Missionaries do not cross their arms. Some projects, such as the Solidarity Teacher Training (STTC) in Yambio, run by the religious congregations, is really a good news story. Bro. Bill Firman writes: “The 111 students are studying to be primary school teachers. They begin the day with a joyful gathering to pray for peace. There is a real mix of ethnicity. There are students from 14 different groups including 20 Dinka, 20 Zande, 8 Nuer, 12 Lango, 5 Balanda and 33 from the Nuba Mountain region (21 of whom are Tira). The tutors are also from different countries and congregations. There are two Irish Sisters, members of different congregations, and likewise two from the USA. There is also a male lay volunteer from the USA. There are three Brothers from three different congregations—one each from Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. The Principal, Sr Margaret Scott, is from New Zealand. Another Sister, from yet another congregation, is from India. I am visiting—from a fourth, different congregation of Brothers and, yes, from yet another country, Australia. Can there be unity with such diversity?”
Box – War criminals must be judged
The South Sudan’s peace accord was signed on 17 August 2015 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and it’s repeated and grave violations requires the African Union (AU) to set up a hybrid court to investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity since the conflict began in December 2013.The end of impunity was defended by Amnesty international and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The common statement followed last July’s return to violence, which “underscores the need to seek accountability for the horrendous crimes committed and should bolster, not undermine, the pursuit of justice,” said Elizabeth Deng, Amnesty International’s South Sudan Researcher. “The African Union must stop dragging its feet and take concrete steps to set up the court, by immediately collecting and preserving evidence before it is lost and witnesses’ memories of events fade.”
Since the agreement was signed, the AU and South Sudanese authorities have made little progress in setting up the court. In the meantime, hostilities have continued and recently escalated, further worsening the human rights situation for millions of South Sudanese people. During and after the recent fighting between government and opposition armed forces, civilians were once again targets of killings, rapes and other forms of sexual violence, and their property was looted and destroyed. “The recent outbreak of fighting in Juba and elsewhere is only the latest in a cycle of violence fuelled by impunity. Sustainable peace will remain elusive if nothing is done to ensure accountability for serious crimes committed in the past,” said Sheila Muwanga, FIDH Vice President. “The African Union must start engaging with South Sudanese, including civil society, to determine the statute, rules of procedure, location and personnel of the court.” The organizations reiterated that all those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law committed during South Sudan’s armed conflict should be brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.