The recent pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops of South Sudan was a heartfelt cry to the leaders of this young nation:
‘The War Must Stop: We Will Finish Ourselves and Finish the Nation. South Sudan has always been considered a God-fearing nation, whether Christians, Muslims or followers of traditional religion. But in this senseless and inhuman war the nation has abandoned the ways of God. This war is evil. As a people we must not be afraid to name sin for what it is, and we hereby name this war as a sin…
Once again we say that this war must stop immediately. Some people sit in Addis Ababa discussing politics while on the ground other people are fighting and dying. The political negotiations cannot be allowed to continue with “business as usual” while the killing continues. Only when the killing stops will it be acceptable to negotiate for posts and positions. Concessions must be made; no political advantage is worth killing more innocent civilians, nor even killing soldiers. The Church is like a Mother who mourns the death of any of God’s children.’
Pope Francis has urged all people to ‘work so that the world becomes a community of brothers and sisters who respect each other, accept each other in one’s diversity and take care of one another.’ Before this internal conflict broke out, I would have said that South Sudan was becoming such a community. The tragedy is that the conflict has shown no respect for others of different tribes, no acceptance of diversity. Are their signs the leaders are hearing the cry of the Bishops? No, there is not. In fact, it is getting worse. No longer is it a matter of tribes against other tribes but, within tribes, the military commanders are inflicting pain upon their own people, forcibly removing children from their parents and sending them into war.
Leer is a town where Solidarity went each year for four years to deliver teacher training. In 2013, 25 Leer teachers qualified to be registered. It is now regarded as a rebel-held area. On past visits to Leer, I took many photos. I look at them today and wonder what has happened to these people who welcomed us so warmly. I know what happened to the Comboni priests, brothers and sisters who were there. They initially stayed with the people but when the Government troops arrived accompanied by rebels from Darfur, they fled into the bush. Fr Raimundo, the Comboni parish priest described it in there terms:
On 30 January, after the Morning Prayer, we met and decided to leave the church and seek refuge in the bush where people had gone. … We were welcomed in Beer chapel by local Christians and settled there thinking that we were safe… Now we were 28 km away from Leer, and so, safe. What happened was that Darfurian mercenary rebels, allied to SPLA forces, attacked us just one hour after our arrival in Beer.. Those people do not knock on your door, they arrived shooting at us. When we heard the gunshots and the sound of bullets flying over our heads, we took what we could and ran into the bush.’
The missionaries were three rugged weeks in swampy bush, with mosquitos, crocodiles, hippos – and caring people – for company, sleeping on the ground, before all of them reached safety. Meanwhile the town of Leer had been looted and burned. Some of those missionaries are now back in Leer. Yesterday one Comboni sister wrote:
‘Just got back from Leer… The people there are praying for peace as their young children are being recruited by force some as young as 11. In the MSF hospital i saw young teenage boys maybe 15-16 with terrible wounds. Some with parts of the body missing. It broke my heart. Also ran into another NGO, Sign of Hope, who are looking into the abuse by an oil company who put chemicals in the ground in order to stop the water so they could drill for oil. These chemicals have entered the water and are causing birth defects in children and one of the Comboni fathers drank some, without thinking and said that the water actually burns the mouth. Cows and goats are laying dead around the area.’
Life continues normally and safely for most of us in South Sudan but there are many innocent people in pain as a consequence of this tragic conflict. The atrocities have been inhuman, sub-human: there is no respect for human dignity. Countless numbers of people have been killed, maimed or traumatized. There is no logic to a war like this. So many people are crying out for peace. Yet the leaders, with their own families safely in Kenya or Uganda, are not listening. O Lord, hear the anguished cries of your people!