In Search of Peace in South Sudan

Father Joseph Otto of Magwi, South Sudan holds mass every day, even if no one attends. If only all of South Sudan, or everywhere for that matter, could hear him when he reads “Blessed are the peacemakers” from the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible. For what South Sudan needs more than anything is apostles of peace.

Father Joseph Otto of St. Theresa Parish in Magwi, South Sudan (Photo by Karen Kasmauski for Catholic Relief Services) 

Conflict threatens South Sudan a year after it gained independence. There is fighting with its northern neighbor Sudan, which is causing a major humanitarian emergency with hundreds of thousands of refugees. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is airlifting food to the displaced, including Plumpy’Sup to prevent the wasting of thousands of infants.

The longer the conflict goes on the greater the humanitarian nightmare. There needs to be a demilitarized border zone between South Sudan and Sudan and safe humanitarian access to reach all of the suffering.

There is also internal conflict. In Jonglei, the largest state in South Sudan, 24 soldiers were killed last month in attacks from an insurgent group.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) says it is “particularly concerned by the apparent emergence in Jonglei of an armed insurgency group linked to the militia leader David Yau Yau, which is believed to be acting in concert with groups of armed youths who have evaded the civilian disarmament operation in the state.”

Last year fighting between the Lou Nuer and Murle tribes escalated. People were killed or kidnapped, homes burned to the ground, and thousands displaced.

Displaced people in Pibor, Jonglei state (OCHA photo)This year the fledgling government began a major peace and disarmament initiative. Hilde F. Johnson, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to South Sudan, says, “The widespread possession, and use, of illegal weapons by the communities and the proliferation of small arms constitutes a significant threat to peace and security in South Sudan, and is seriously exacerbating inter-communal violence in Jonglei…A pro-active reconciliation process and peaceful disarmament is the only way forward to maintain peace and security for the people of the area.”

Will disarmament of rival tribes occur throughout South Sudan? (United Nations photo)
The disarmament process has resulted in the release of some of the kidnapping victims. A mother who, along with her two-year old son, was rescued by the army during the disarmament campaign said, “I was thinking day and night about my village and parents…and almost lost hope of seeing (them).”

The tribal violence is not the only threat, though. Flooding has also struck Jonglei, causing more displacement and suffering for at least 68,000 people. The UN is continuing to assess this latest development as it tries to deliver humanitarian aid.

The road to peace in South Sudan has many twists, turns and rocks that have to be navigated. It starts by ending conflict among rival tribes, the theme of a series of peace conferences this year.

After one of these conference in Magwi County earlier this year, Sylvia Fletcher of UNMISS said, “The success of the new nation of South Sudan in large part will be determined by the capacity of peace between communities and the ability first for coexistence, [and] next for concerted development efforts that will engage all communities.”

It’s more than giving rival tribes a peaceful way to resolve differences; it’s also ending the hunger, poverty, and lack of education that cause desperation and chaos. A society cannot develop if its citizens are hungry and malnourished. In fact, malnutrition can stunt someone early in life to the point that they never recover.

Commitment to community fosters trust and peace in war-ravaged southern Sudan. Father Joseph Otto of St. Theresa Parish in Magwi greets a child after Mass. (Photo by Karen Kasmauski for CRS)

South Sudan needs national infant feeding and school lunch programs. The World Food Programme provided 355,000 schoolchildren with meals and take-home rations during July, a hopeful sign for South Sudan, particularly if this is the start of a self-sustaining national program.

A system of roads needs to be built connecting all corners of the country. These are the foundations of peace, development, and a sound economy. Small farmers must be allowed to grow their crops in peace.

Once the guns fall silent and disappear from South Sudan there is no telling how much the country could achieve. Other countries can continue to offer help, but ultimately the answer must come from the peacemakers within South Sudan.

See also An Independent Nation’s Parallel Path to Lasting Peace.

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