YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura Yambio in South Sudan has fingered the country’s ethnic and political divides as being at the heart of the disappearance of Father Luke Yugue and his driver, Michael Gbeko.

The pair went missing April 27 after leaving their Nagero Parish on a motorbike trip to another parish in Western Equatoria State.

Hiiboro told Crux the context of the kidnapping: Tombura County, located within Western Equatoria State (WES), has been experiencing ethnic violence between two once peaceful groups: The Azande and Balanda.

In 2021, violent clashes erupted, resulting in hundreds of deaths, property destruction, and displacement of thousands.

Hiiboro said the two main political parties in South Sudan are also along these ethnic lines: the SPLM-IG led by President Salva Kiir and the SPLM-IO led by Vice President Riek Machar.

The SPLM-IO was given control of WES, including Tombura County.

Both political sides have accused each other of causing the deadly ethnic conflict.

Following the violence, an agreement was made for both sides to move their troops to a containment camp, where they would be trained and integrated into a unified South Sudan Popular Defense Forces (SSPDF).

The militia that supported Kiir complied, but the other did not. Recent weeks have witnessed renewed ethnic violence in Tombura County.

The bishop suggests that the Balanda SPLMO-IO might have kidnapped the priest after a Balanda policeman was kidnapped earlier.

Following are excerpts of the interview…

Crux: Under what circumstances did Fr. Luke Yugue and his driver, Michael Gbeko go missing?

Hiiboro: The SPLM-IO is in control of the road between Tombura County and Nagero County where the Kidnaped Priest and his driver serve.

Prior to the kidnap of the priest and his driver, a policeman from the Balanda ethnic group, Ferdinando Minisare vanished while on his way on a motorbike to Source Yubu, a town within Tambura County.

After the policeman vanished, some members of the Balanda community promised revenge on the Azande for abducting and killing the Balanda policeman. It was shortly after the call for revenge that the priest and his driver, who are both from the Azande ethnic group, were abducted in the SPLM-IO controlled area while on their way from Nagero County to Tambura County.

The priest has been serving the Christian community that is predominantly Balanda and is well loved by both ethnic groups. He has dedicated his life to finding peace between the two ethnic groups and has been serving the displaced people of both communities. He had dedicated his efforts toward the re-establishment of peaceful co-existence among all people in the region.

What is the mood out there in South Sudan, especially amongst Christians, following the disappearance of the priest?

Since the ethnic violence began, the Church has been seen by both ethnic groups as a source of moral support and security.

Whenever there is violence in the community, civilians from both sides seek refuge in the Church. The Church gives them spiritual support and collaborates with other charity organizations to provide for their needs. The Church also has been leading efforts of reconciliation and lasting peace in the greater community and country. In addition to that, the Church provides education and healthcare services to all people within the country.

As a result, the Church has gained high respect among all the faithful, including non-Catholics, the government, and opposition forces in the country. That was why the priest and his driver did not consider the risk involved when he decided to travel as he usually did with his driver.

Because of the important roles that the clergy and the Church play in the communities and country, it has been inconceivable for the faithful, clergy, and people in general that a priest could be targeted with violence.

Thus, the incident has shocked the entire diocese and nation. Everyone wants to know what has happened to the priest and his driver, where they are and what their fate is. People continue to fast and pray for their safe return. To sum it up, everyone is in a state of shock.  It is the first time in the diocese that a priest has been targeted this way.

What is the Church and the authorities doing to find the missing priest and his driver?

Since the kidnap of the priest and his driver, the Church has taken several steps to find the missing priest and his driver.

It has submitted a written request to the authorities to act urgently to find the priest, including requesting the urgent deployment of the government army to stop the ethnic violence and disarming everyone involved in the violence.

As of current, the army has already been deployed in the County and is currently involved in the disarmament process. The army is also in an effort to find the priest and his driver or know what had happened to him.

In addition to that, the Church has also announced and asked the kidnapers to release the innocent priest and his driver. The Church continues to ask anyone with the news about the whereabouts of the priest and his driver to come forward. Above all, the Church continues to fast and pray for Divine Intervention.

I understand South Sudan is still at war. What is the situation right now and what has been the impact in terms of the displacement of people, the destruction of property and the abuse of women and children?

As of now, there are thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, seeking refuge in the Churches, military barracks, and UN compounds. Most people ran with nothing. Their homes have been burnt and their properties looted or destroyed. There is widespread hunger as the Church and other organizations do not have the abilities to provide for their needs. Many people also lack shelter and emergency healthcare services.

Women and children who stayed back in their villages continue to be attacked by assailants with machetes and knives. The wounded are being brought to the overwhelmed hospitals/clinics and with the dead being buried.

To make matters worse, this is happening in the farming season. The disruption of farming is bound to cause prolonged hardships, including hunger for the poor civilians.

Pope Francis has been front and center in the effort towards peace in South Sudan. Why is peace so elusive?

The main obstacle to peace in South Sudan has been, the implementation of the peace agreement has been too slow. On top of that, rival factions continue to fight and cause more killings and displacements of innocent civilians, including the destruction of properties and economic hardships.

Civilians are being targeted on the basis of ethnicity or for belonging to rival groups.

International donors and governments continue to pressure the leaders to put their differences apart and commit to the implementation of the peace agreement.

Finally, South Sudan obtained independence in 2011 amid high expectations. More than a decade later, the country is still unsettled. Was that independence worth the while?

Yes, the independence of South Sudan was worth it. Before South Sudan got its independence, it was a marginalized region that was neglected by the ruling Arab and Islamic Sudan.

The physical infrastructures were almost non-existent. Public institutions were underdeveloped. The governing systems were underdeveloped. The rate of illiteracy was extremely high.

Almost all social services were non-existent. Important systems such as education, civic education, commercial agriculture, healthcare, clean water, housing, sanitation, preventative care, human rights, strong economic system, and the trained personnel to manage or run those systems were missing.

South Sudan is a country that requires long-term commitment to comprehensive nation-building. As a new and underdeveloped country with all these overwhelming problems, it will take years for the right government in place to turn things around and put the country on the right path of peace, stability and socioeconomic growth and development.

What works better for South Sudan than any other that had gotten independence in the recent past is its enormous untapped wealth.

South Sudan is blessed with a young energetic population, minerals, natural resources, wildlife, arable land, and beautiful scenery. So with the right government and leadership in place, the country can be transformed into the fastest growing economy and developing nation in a few years.

South Sudan has got the entire necessary ingredient that could make that happen. The country just needs the right government and leadership in place. That is why the independence of South Sudan was worth the while.

The Church will continue to play the important role of providing guidance for peace, reconciliation, good governance, and sustainable development. It will continue to give hope and provide moral, spiritual, and physical support to all the suffering people of South Sudan.