Have you rejected South Sudan altogether? Does your very soul revolt at her?

South Sudanese displaced by war (2013). Crédit image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu_echo/

When, in 2021, my appointment to South Sudan became known, I received a couple of messages ranging from inspiring prayerful wishes to nerve-wrecking comments on South Sudan. Someone said “there is so much violence in that country, I wish you wouldn’t have to go there”. Another regrettably asked “why are you always appointed to war-torn countries? You are leaving Mali, a troubled country, to go to a worse one. You are moving from the frying pan to the fire”. A Muslim friend teased, “that country ought not to exist, why go there?” More seriously, another said, “the people in that country are not good, they will kill you”.

As I kept pondering over these comments, I resolved to do everything possible to avoid hearing more of that kind for fear that the worse things would be said to put my soul to fright. I was determined to safeguard my inner peace and keep myself free from the clutches of anxiety. Thankfully, to an appreciable degree, I succeeded in remaining unperturbed by the frightful warnings those comments signalled, as the little echoes of violence they contain remained oblivious to me. However, as the days went by, the more I learnt about South Sudan in preparation for my eventual going there, the more the comments imposingly affirmed their significance. In most of the materials I read, violence, war, conflict, insecurity, poverty and suffering were the recurring subjects. On further research, I discovered that South Sudan, though the youngest country in the world, was according to the Global Peace Index Ranking, “the most dangerous country in Africa and the fourth most unsafe place in the world” .

When I finally arrived in South Sudan, the reality on the ground spoke more nobly than the sum of all that I had up to then learnt. The spate of violence and its awful consequences are stark. From the account of eyewitnesses and surviving victims, fear, sorrow, despair, uncertainty and great suffering are heard. In my first audience with Bishop Stephen Nyodho Ador of the diocese of Malakal to which we belong, he grieved over the weight of destruction South Sudan suffered from the terrible violence that befell her, spanning from 2013 to 2016. With specific reference to his hometown and seat of his episcopate, he said “Malakal is in ruins”.

Like the prophet Jeremiah

This wasn’t an overstatement! Indeed, violence and war have left the towns of Malakal, Renk, Wedakona and similar others in terrible desolation. Were one to travel back in time to those towns in 2013 or 2014, the horrific scenes may have obliged one to lament as did the prophet Jeremiah;

«If I go into the countryside, there lie those killed by the sword; if I go into the city, I see people tortured with hunger; even prophets and priests roam the country at their wits’ end»Have you rejected Judah altogether? Does your very soul revolt at Zion? Why have you struck us down without hope of cure? We were hoping for peace — no good came of it! For the moment of cure — nothing but terror! (Jer 14:18-19)

This lament of the prophet may appear an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it gives a vivid mental picture of the level of violence and the horrific consequences South Sudan suffered shortly after her independence in 2011. The joy of independence and freedom were short-lived. People hoped for peace and prosperity, but somewhat, “no good came of it.” They hoped for a moment of cure, but terror struck instead! One cannot but ask: Lord, have you rejected South Sudan altogether? Does your very soul loathe her being? A young man from Akobo, one of our outstations, recounted that somewhere at the outskirt of the town, lay many skulls which he and one priest discovered as they took a stroll. He proposed me to go with him to see, but I declined his invitation, lest the words of the prophet be fulfilled in my hearing, “If I go into the countryside, there lie those killed by the sword”. Born out of fearless struggles and great sufferings, South Sudan indeed, is yet to reach her Sabbath and find her true rest. Like Ramah, she is inconsolably in tears because violence has usurped the peace of her children and left her in perpetual insecurity.

What is violence in South Sudan?

Violence is a multifaceted concept and as such, no single definition of it may be absolute. In the context of South Sudan, I tend to think that any hitherto known definition of violence is applicable. The World Health Organization defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force, threats against others or oneself, against a group or community, that results in or has a high risk of resulting in trauma, psychological harm, developmental problems or death.”   I find this definition the most fitting as every element in it is true of any form of violence taken at random in South Sudan. I observe however, that this definition is yet to be understood by a majority of people as they mistake violence for bravery or rather that violence is misconstrued as a justified act of bravery. In some cultures, for example, coming of age justifies raiding for cattle, children or women as by that act the youth is confirmed “brave and responsible” enough to assume his place in society. It goes without saying then, that violence is not perceived as something innately negative. In fact, what is standardly known and shunned as violence in most cultures has yet to be understood in that way by other cultures.

The different facets of violence and their underlying causes

There are as many kinds of violence as there are underlying causes. There is a strife for ethnic/tribal and economic dominance among the ethnic groups. This is driven by their hidden desire to ascend to ultimate political power and governance. From this is engendered political, tribal/ethnic violence. Independence, cultural identity, religious freedom among others were the overarching pre-independence goals for all well-meaning South Sudanese. After independence, there seems to be a gradual shift in vision, ideals and values. The spirit of nationalism and patriotism seems to be giving way to ethnic interest. It seems to matter now who leads and who is led and hence the continuous wrangling for political power. There exist also other forms of communal and ethnic violence which are not directly motivated by any urge for ultimate political power. This violence erupts between communities mainly based on territorial, agricultural and other socio-cultural interests. There are constant reciprocal deadly raids for cattle, children and women among tribes. High bride price, perceived infertility among certain tribes, and insufficient grazing fields for cattle are arguably thought to be the underlying causes of this category of violence. The level of insecurity created by this type of violence is regrettably growing at an alarming rate. The hub of this sort of violence is the Jonglei State, which is the ecclesial territory of the Missionaries of Africa at St Paul’s Parish.  Even as these words are written I am reliably informed that more than twenty people have been killed in a violent clash between two tribes in Duk, one of our outstations. Related to communal violence is the subtle and systematic violence of revenge killing, the cause of which I would say is dysfunctional culture and religion. There is also domestic or gender-based violence whose victims are mostly women and children. Interpersonal violence is also a common phenomenon as individuals, most often overtaken by the effects of other forms of violence, suffer attacks, abuse, threats, or simply vent their anger on each other. As a shepherd, I get wounded by my wounded sheep in this regard. Yet, even so, I must remain their shepherd.   

The persistent collective violence (war) in recent years has led to high proliferation of arms in South Sudan paving the way for the cycle of violence to continue. Due to easy access to guns, armed groups are on the surge wielding sporadic violence on the population. 

The effects of violence

The effects of violence are manifold. Violence has left many a South Sudanese traumatized, emotionally numbed, and aggressive. The ransacking of villages and towns has retarded and continues to hamper the infrastructural development of the country. (The diocese of Malakal for instance lost more than 30 cars and other valuable church properties during the violence of 2013). Closely related to this, are the dire effects of hunger and starvation due to reduced economic productivity. Whenever violence breaks out, it freezes economic activities leading to continuing poverty. Socially, violence has alienated certain groups, tribes and individuals. It is needless to say that the massive loss of human life and displacement during violence, also lead to an upsurge of dysfunctional families, a situation that hampers the proper development of children. Through violence many families have been deprived of their father figure, as too often men perish during clashes. It has to be stated also that violence adversely affects people’s faith and morals, as some, out of their bitter experiences, lose hope in God and humanity. For some people, to take away human life is an easy thing to do. This points to the depth of irreligiosity and moral decay that violence can cause.

What is being done to reduce violence and heal its victims

At the national and international level, efforts are made to combat violence in South Sudan. Up to now, the 2018 Addis Ababa Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan is yielding some positive results, even if much more is left to be desired. There is a fragile peace across the nation. The Ecumenical visit of Peace by Pope Francis and his allied Shepherds to South Sudan significantly contributed to national healing, peace building and hope restoration in the country. There are also many support programs run by many local and international Non-Governmental Organizations and Institutions some of which target reducing violence through peacebuilding, education, healthcare and similar activities. They also offer a variety of humanitarian support systems centered on providing shelter, feeding, accompaniment, healing and the rehabilitation of victims of violence.

The Church in South Sudan is also at the forefront in helping victims of violence. The diocese of Malakal for instance, is rendering an immense service to thousands of victims fleeing violence from neighboring Sudan by offering them free transportation to reach Malakal from the border town of Renk. As a new community of the Missionaries of Africa, our humble apostolic duty is to eke out the efforts of the local church by bringing to bear our “tout à tous”. In this ocean of violence, we consciously present ourselves as “witnesses of the Kingdom”, for we know that he to whom the Kingdom belongs is in the midst of his people. We break the bread every day in supplication for the people. In other practical terms, while we ourselves are still finding our bearings as a new community, we seek first to befriend the people. This will lead us to gaining their trust and from that we can live together as brothers and sisters. For the time being, owing to lack of resources at our disposal, we only facilitate the running of courses on trauma healing, justice and peace promotion, women empowerment among others. Topical among our many pastoral plans are faith revival and education for transformation. We are convinced beyond doubts that only good education decked with firm faith can break the vicious chain of violence and bring about development, for the people perish for lack of knowledge; they lag behind for lack of a positive mindset. We are certain that the Lord has not rejected South Sudan altogether and neither have you! 

By: Cletus Atindaana, M.Afr.

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