YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As South Sudan continues to be consumed by conflict, a Catholic missionary has detailed the precariousness of the situation in Africa’s newest nation.
Franciscan Father Federico Gandolfi went to the capital Juba in January 2015, where he joined four other friars at the only Franciscan house in the country.
“Together we manage a fairly large parish that includes villages distant up to 75 km from the capital,” he told Fides, a Vatican-affiliated news agency.
A five-year civil war that broke out in 2013 has claimed nearly 400,000 lives and left millions facing malnutrition and severe food insecurity.
“Almost everything is lacking here,” Gandolfi said.
Just near the friars’ church is a refugee camp that hosts some 20,000 people.
“Here the conditions of life are even worse, but we find people capable of incredible resilience even if the effects of their serious psychological trauma are very evident,” the priest said.
He said prayers and the anointing of the sick are part of their daily routine, and the friars have witnessed the healing power of the people’s faith in God.
“I remember a 9-year-old girl. She was lying on a worn out and dirty blanket in terrible health conditions… I hoped the Lord would call her to Him as soon as possible. The week after when I went to the family the girl was in great shape … if it is a miracle I do not know, but the faith of these people is certainly capable of shaking paradise,” Gandolfi said.
The priest said the Franciscan friars offer refugees and internally displaced persons “an open, peaceful, non-violent space where those who come to us have the opportunity to find a corner of serenity within such a difficult life.”
Gandolfi lamented the hopelessness that has engulfed the people, and added the lack of hope “is slowly stopping a new generation of young people who would give anything to leave the country but who are too poor to become refugees and migrants. Someone also asked me: ‘Father, why did God allow me to be born in South Sudan?’ This is a question which has no answer.”
A war of Shame and Pain
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July 2011, but the euphoria after the hard-won independence was short-lived. Hopes for a more peaceful and prosperous nation were dashed when conflict erupted between President Salva Kiir, from the country’s largest ethnic group, Dinka, and his Vice President, Dr Riek Machar – a Nuer.
The president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Barani Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio decried what the civil war has brought to his country.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, the prelate said any normal-thinking South Sudanese “cannot (think) of sponsoring war anymore at whatever cost, knowing the shame and pain we have gone through.”
He said the Church is praying that Christian love will prevail in South Sudan.
“In offering these hopes and prayers (for peace), we are conscious that God energizes people’s imaginations and gives them the will, to make of South Sudan a better place here and now. It is because of this that I speak of the generosity of each and every one of us to give the best of ourselves for the salvation of South Sudan,” Kussala said.
There is a hope that a shaky peace agreement signed on Sep. 12, 2018, will take hold. Under the terms, Kiir remains as president and Machar would be reinstated as “first” vice president. But similar agreements in the past have always broken down completely.
Sister Joan Mumaw is the president of Friends in Solidarity, the U.S. partner to Solidarity with South Sudan.
“People fear that there are issues that are underlying the conflict that have not been addressed and that violence could become ugly again. Not all factions are on board with the peace agreement. There are still a lot of paramilitaries operating. There is fear fighting will resume,” she told Global Sisters Report.
“Certainly, people on the ground want peace. We have to continue to pray that things can improve — that fighting can end, and that people can resume their normal lives. I’d say what has been agreed to is at least a start,” she said.