NEWS– Bishops in South Sudan have described their disappointment as the country marks its tenth anniversary.
“We are sad as a Church to see that the country has failed miserably to live up to expectation,” the Bishop of Maridi, the Rt Revd Moses Zungo, said this week.
“What most people are experiencing nowadays in South Sudan are just disillusionment, bitterness, and uncertainty.”
South Sudan celebrated its independence on 9 July 2011, after a 22-year civil war with the north (Sudan) in which more than two million people died.
In 2013, a five-year civil war erupted after clashes between supporters of the President and his former deputy. Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions were displaced, and, while warring leaders held protracted peace talks, people died of hunger in what the UN described as a man-made famine.
Among the human-rights atrocities recorded was the rape of women in churches. During a visit in 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed over a mass grave at a church in Bor. Progress in implementing a 2018 peace agreement remains slow.
Today UNICEF reports that the country is facing its worst humanitarian crisis to date: two-thirds of children are in urgent need of assistance.
This week, Bishops in South Sudan reflected on their hopes in 2011, and the reality ten years on.
“We had wanted a united, simple, honest people guided by faith in God, and led by grace, not violence and prejudice,” recalled the Archbishop of Upper Nile, the Most Revd Hilary Garang Deng.
“Everybody, including myself, has known clearly that we have lost the direction, the route that would have taken us to our destiny.”
His greatest concern was the fate of the younger generation. South Sudan has the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world. With so few opportunities, many were turning to crime and violence, he said.
“It is a serious and dangerous thing for the nation not to invest in their future generation after the war has almost killed half of its population.” The people of South Sudan had been “betrayed by their leaders, who came to power with no idea of what to do in a national building project.
The Bishop of Bentiu, the Rt Revd John Jal Deng, described a country “on the brink of collapse”. Bishop Zungo spoke of corruption and a “dire” economic situation, in which civil servants and the army had gone unpaid for months.
The Bishop of Mundri, the Rt Revd Bismark Monday Avokaya Azumu, recalled the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
“The South Sudanese were amongst the most hopeful people of the world. . . The jubilation was great, and the hope was profound. It was as if we were crossing River Jordan into the Promised Land.”
Today, he lamented “the total absence of respect and value for the sanctity of human life; torture; rampant corruption; land-grabbing; robbing of innocent people at gunpoint in broad daylight; killings by ‘unknown gunmen’ . . . deprivation of the people of the basics of life and survival and an endless civil war”.
Humanitarian intervention had saved lives, but had not addressed the political root causes of the crisis, and had, in fact, freed the country’s leaders from their responsibilities — they had “concentrated instead on conflict”.
The Church itself had suffered: buildings, including Archbishop Ngalamu Theological College, had been destroyed during the eruption of violence in 2013, and the Bishop had become an internally displaced person. Money had since been raised, but there remained a need for funds.
The Bishop of Panrieng, the Rt Revd David Kiir Mayath, had hoped for the building of infrastructure to connect the country, a “professional, well-cared-for” army, the rule of law, and priority afforded to education; a country where “widows and orphans of the fallen heroes and heroines who died as a result of the struggle for our freedom should live with dignity and not beg in the streets looking for something to eat”.
Today, the country had been “torn apart”, he said. His greatest hope was that the peace agreement would be implemented, as the Church brought people together through workshops, prayer, and mediation.
Bishops spoke of hope in the people, the 2018 peace agreement and the international community, and, most of all, in God. “I need someone who is able to step in and help us,” Bishop Azumu said. “And certainly, as a believer in Christ, that is ultimately where my hope is and where most people’s hope hinges.”
In the past ten years, the Church had “grown tremendously, as many people have turned to God in the midst of their suffering”. It had also grown in “resisting the daunting temptations of ethnicity and politics” and supported people both spiritually and materially, although it had “inadequate resources to meet the enormous material survival needs of the victims of conflict”.
But Archbishop Deng, who has founded a small NGO, Grace Aid South Sudan, lamented that the Church had been “terribly divided. . . We are more divided than when we were in old Sudan, when we were facing one common challenge or enemy.”
On Tuesday, UNICEF reported that two-thirds of the country’s children were in “desperate need of support”. The country’s child mortality rate is among the highest in the world: one in ten children is not expected to reach their fifth birthday.
“I would love to see a transformed South Sudan where enmity, hatred, and tribalism are ironed out completely,” Bishop Jal Deng said this week: “a South Sudan where our children would go to school without fear and worries about hunger and war.” He joined his fellow bishops in turning to scripture for hope, quoting from Lamentations: “Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love.’’
“I still believe that God will see us through, and South Sudan will shine once again,” he said.