ROME – After the shooting of South Sudan’s newest bishop last week, many western news agencies and other Africa-watchers assumed that the tribalism with which the continent is so often associated was the motive.
However, two veteran Catholic observers of Africa disagree on the extent to which ethnic rivalries actually drove the attack on Bishop-elect Christian Carlassare of Rumbek last Monday, which he survived.
Gino Barsella, a representative of South Sudan for the AVSI Foundation, which carries out development and humanitarian projects throughout Africa, told Crux he believes the attack was “absolutely” ethnically motivated.
Carlassare, an Italian Comboni missionary, was appointed as bishop of Rumbek just two months ago, moving to an area predominantly belonging to the Dinka tribe. Previously, he spent 10 years working closely with the Nuer tribe, which is traditionally the sworn enemy of the Dinka.
“As he has been working for so many years with the Nuer, he was considered a Nuer: Not an Italian, not a foreigner, not a Comboni, so he should not be the bishop of Rumbek,” Barsella said.
However, Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish missionary with the Loreto Sisters who has lived in Rumbek running a girls’ boarding school for 15 years, said she believes the motive for the attack was “Absolutely not ethnic at all.”
“There is no question about that,” she said, adding, “Criminals did that. There is no other answer. They were criminals and crazy guys.”
Resentment that a foreigner was appointed bishop rather than a local Dinka priest “might be an individual’s ambition, or pride, but we would call that a criminal,” she said, insisting that authorities are “not looking for an ethnic group,” but for individuals.
Carlassare, 43, arrived in Rumbek less than a month ago and has not yet been ordained a bishop. He was shot the night between April 25 and 26, just after midnight, when two armed men broke into the bishop-elect’s house and shot him in the legs.
He survived the assault but suffered significant blood loss and as a result was transferred to a hospital in Nairobi for a transfusion. So far, he is recovering well and has even taken a few steps. His episcopal consecration was initially scheduled to take place May 23, but has been postponed as the investigation into his attack goes forward.
Yet regardless of Carlassare’s good recovery, the attack highlighted just how unstable South Sudan still is as leaders attempt to iron out the wrinkles of a peace agreement between the government and opposition forces, the implementation of which has been delayed several times as parties continue to negotiate.
Rumbek itself was the site of significant conflict in South Sudan’s last war, meaning development in the area has been a slow and strained process.
“We’ve all experienced the economic changes, our currency has dropped, we’ve all experienced the unemployment, the hunger, and the displacement. That is daily, and that is the reality people are living with here every day,” Treacy said.
Added to this is the consistent violent conflict that has plagued South Sudan ever since it gained independence in 2011, something Treacy says is due in large part to the fact that the country simply “didn’t have the structures in place to support what we wanted.”
“It only took two years before the conflict began between politicians, and it filtered down through the different communities, and many, many people were affected by that everywhere,” she said, noting that when there is conflict, guns are more available.
Easy access to guns has increased, “and they are in the hands of people that don’t want development, or they want development on their terms, so people are living in the shadow of that all of the time,” she said, but insisted that in most cases, “that’s not what people want.”
“Some young people are affected, they see development, they see money in the hands of some, they see hunger, they see poverty, they see starvation, and jealousies can grow, and it can raise anxieties for people,” Treacy said, but assured that in her experience, the vast majority of people, including the Dinka, are hospitable and welcoming, especially to foreigners.
Rumbek is a city composed of people from different nationalities, “and there’s a cohesiveness in that,” she said, adding that people in Rumbek are “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of the attack on Carlassare.
“The Dinka culture is a culture of hospitality and welcome. This man is only 10 days in our community, and he’s been assaulted like this,” Treacy said, recalling how while at the hospital after the morning after the attack, and elderly Dinka man waiting with her asked her what could have motivated the assault, because “He doesn’t even have enemies yet.”
“So people are embarrassed and ashamed about this, and I think the government is doing their best to investigate, and I think it will be important that the truth does come out so that people won’t be pointing fingers or suggesting,” she said, reiterating her belief that ethnicity had nothing to do with it.
“People like to talk about ethnic wars, and it’s true that they are there in areas, but in Rumbek we don’t unless it comes down to cattle raiding,” she said.
Barsella, who lived in Sudan for 11 years and who has lived in Rumbek for 14 months, said the attack boils down to rooted ethnic tensions that led to the war resulting in South Sudan’s independence.
South Sudan’s current president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, is also a Dinka.
Even though the Dinka are a majority in Rumbek, Barsella said there is still conflict among different factions of the Dinka tribe, causing tensions and feuds at the local level.
Part of AVSI’s work in the area, he said, is “to make tribes, different enemy groups, reconcile and live and work together,” because if there is no “peaceful situation of dialogue, you don’t have anything good coming from it.”
Barsella said he believes another factor in the attack is that after Rumbek’s previous bishop, Caesar Mazzolare, died in 2011, there was no clear candidate for a replacement, since Mazzolare was a well-loved foreigner, and there was pressure among different factions of the Dinka as to who his successor ought to be.
In the end, a Dinka priest by the name of Father John Mathiang was named diocesan coordinator, running things in the 10-year interim before Carlassare was named.
Barsella noted that many dioceses were left without a bishop in the years immediately after the civil war, because the situation was too unpredictable to make those sorts of appointments. However, in recent years the Catholic Church has begun appointing bishops again, some of whom have faced trouble, but none of whom have been attacked like Carlassare.
In Rumbek, it was “an impossible moment to put a Dinka priest” in charge due to ongoing tribal tensions, he said, noting that shortly before Carlassare was shot, a letter was written by 38 prominent figures in the diocese, including three priests, arguing that Mathiang should have been named bishop.
A day or two later, the attack took place, Barsella said, adding, “I don’t think they organized it, but they created the right context for it.”
All 38 signatories of the letter have since been arrested as part of the ongoing probe into who was behind the attack. Kiir has condemned the incident and called for a swift investigation and for justice to be administered.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen