Crying for Peace in South Sudan
Two years ago Maryknoll Sister Janice McLaughlin wrote in Maryknoll magazine about being in the new nation of South Sudan just weeks after the East African country was born out of a peace agreement between the government of Sudan and independence forces of the country’s majority Christian south. Sister McLaughlin described the people as “celebrating their hard-won freedom” and said “they exuded a spirit of hope and enthusiasm despite their extreme poverty.” Yet she warned: “I had personally experienced the exuberant mood of a newly independent nation when Zimbabwe gained its freedom in 1980 and when South Africa achieved a multiracial government led by Nelson Mandela in 1994. I had seen this mood evaporate with the lack of development and the looting of resources by the new leaders who had come to power.” Sadly, as of this writing, her words seem prophetic in South Sudan.
The nascent nation of South Sudan, which gained its independence nearly three years ago amid much hope and fanfare, is today embroiled in near civil war. Soldiers loyal to the country’s two leading politicians—President Salva Kiir and ousted Vice President Riek Machar—began fighting each other in late 2013, exposing political differences that break along the tribal lines of two of the area’s main ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer. Kiir is a Dinka and Machar a Nuer. In only a few months, more than 10,000 people were reported killed and thousands more displaced by fighting.
“Much has changed in the last two years,” says Maryknoll Father David Schwinghamer, who went into South Sudan on a fact-finding mission in February. “The euphoria over independence has receded and there is a lot of concern about the future.” But, he added, “There is also a great deal of energy going into finding a peaceful resolution to the present conflict.”
Amid this situation, the bishops of both Sudan and South Sudan, who had been key players in the process leading to the 2005 peace agreement, issued a statement decrying the violence and denouncing that “corruption and nepotism have contributed to the destabilization” of the fledgling country.
“Our vision of a liberated nation in which all people will be equal and live in peace appears to be shattered,” the bishops, who remain in one episcopal conference, wrote in their Jan. 30 pastoral exhortation. “The blood of the innocent, in their thousands, cries out from the ground!” the bishops stated. “The Lord will judge harshly those who continue to murder, rape and loot his innocent children, and even more harshly those who incite this violence and fail to prevent it in their greed for power.”
The bishops blamed the violence on tensions within the ruling party that threaten to destabilize the country, poor governance driven by “personalized political power,” corruption and nepotism and the country’s “painful history,” which they called “an open wound that desperately needs healing.”
They called for reconciliation to heal the nation’s trauma and for inclusion of the Church in the peace discussions. “Why is it that only those who took up arms are discussing the future of our country?” the bishops asked.
The episcopal conference also demanded the reform of the military, particularly ending conscription and recruitment of children, and it called for an emphasis on education and national schools to promote diversity.
In closing, the bishops said that while focusing on South Sudan, they “remain painfully aware” of the suffering of the peoples who remain part of Sudan in the Nuba Mountains, Darfur and Blue Nile in Sudan, and the contested area of Abyei.
“Daily bombing causes great suffering and death to civilians,” the bishops said. “They do not have access to food, medicines, vaccines and other humanitarian necessities. Women, children and the elderly shelter in caves. … They too deserve justice and peace, the freedom to practice their own culture and religion, and full citizen rights in the land of their birth.”
The bishops called for implementation in good faith of a cease-fire signed on Jan. 23, 2014. “There are no excuses for not doing so,” they said.