YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – United Nations officials have expressed concern over the humanitarian conditions in South Sudan as the mandate for the UN peacekeeping mission in the country is set to expire.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that the people of South Sudan “have simply suffered far too much for far too long and we must not take their resilience against incredible odds for granted.”
South Sudan – with a majority Christian and animist population – won its independence from predominantly-Muslim Sudan in July 2011 after a decades long civil war.
But two years later, South Sudan became involved in its own civil war, this time along tribal lines. President Salva Kiir, a member of the majority Dinka tribe, accused his then-Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, of attempting a coup against the government.
The resulting conflict has raised fears of a possible genocide, with the United Nations declaring famine in several regions. Over three million people have so far fled their homes.
However, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala says hope is not lost.
The Bishop of Tombura-Yambio, in the southwest of the country, Kussala recently told the Interstate Governors’ Strategic Intervention Conference for Peace that South Sudan is a “blessed land” with “a wounded history.”
“We are never defined by our past but our present, as no matter how hard the past, you can always start again. We wish to forget the wounds of the past and move ahead towards peace,” the bishop said.
Hopes for peace were reborn in August 2015 when a peace pact – the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) – was signed by the two sides of the conflict.
However, the peace was short-lived, and both the Kiir and Machar accused each other of violating the agreement.
Speaking to Katherine Noel of the Council on Foreign Relations, Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation, said that “the reason things turned from a political crisis to a war was not because of ethnic divisions as such, but because the army was not a professionalized, institutionalized army, but rather a collection of militia, each of which was organized on the basis of personal loyalty to its commander—in effect, ethnically based armed units.”
In addition, the leaders of the young nation committed a number of strategic blunders, including “shutting down their national oil production six months after independence because of a dispute with the northern Sudanese.”
De Waal said this meant Kiir didn’t have the money to keep buying loyalties from the various ethnic groups.
This meant ethnic identification soon trumped any ties to the young national government.
This development has been lamented by the Catholic Church, one of the few trusted national organizations.
“Ethnic divisions have remained a constant feature of southern Sudan society for many decades. In the past, they weakened the struggle for liberation and this is an important factor in the current civil war,” said Comboni Father Daniele Moschetti, a missionary who served in South Sudan for six years, in a letter to the Catholic news agency, Fides.
But Moschetti said the ethnic diversity of the country “should be a cause of celebration, not of suffering.”
Kussala said that because “there is so much uncertainty in the world right now, because things are changing so fast, there is a temptation to forge identities – tribal identities – that give you a sense of certainty, a buffer against change.”
The bishop told Fides that peace will come if there is a shift in focus to investing in young people by giving them better education and quality professional formation.
He also called on the states of South Sudan – which is a federal republic – to create common economic projects and cross-border peace initiatives.
“Invest in hope, invest in peace. Peace is possible because it is the only way,” Kussala said.
On Thursday, Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the UN Security Council that fully half of the population will be reliant on emergency food aid by early next year.
“The fact remains that until international humanitarian law is complied with, until the fighting ends and until basic services are established, humanitarian needs will remain dire,” Lowcock said.
Pope Francis had planned to go to South Sudan with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby this October as an ecumenical gesture. When the visit was cancelled due to the deteriorating security situation, both Churches said both leaders hoped to visit the country in the near future.
On Nov. 23, the pope held a prayer service for both South Sudan and Congo.
Mentioning he was unable to go to South Sudan, Francis said in his homily that “we know that prayer is more important, because it is more powerful: Prayer works by the power of God, for whom nothing is impossible.”