Violent conflict in South Sudan has resulted in famine in several parts of the country and fueled the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. St. Mary’s Cathedral in Wau, South Sudan’s second largest city, has become a sanctuary for thousands of people in need of shelter from the ongoing civil war, but with fighting close by, help is scarce and food in short supply.
As the civil war in South Sudan approaches the end of its fourth year, many thousands of desperate people in the northwestern region of the country have been forced to flee their homes and are now living in a UN protected area, while others – several thousand – have taken refuge in four church compounds, including St. Mary’s Cathedral. Maryknoll Father Tom Tiscornia is in Wau, serving as chaplain for the Catholic Health Training Institute.
“Just this week the UN has again distributed some food items to those who are in the church grounds,” Father Tiscornia said in an email on August 29. “They had stopped for a while, hoping that people would return to their homes or go to the UN protected camp. Many of these people go out during the day but return at night for protection.”
According to Father Tiscornia, a large percentage of the people taking refuge in the church compounds are either children or elderly. Their future is extremely uncertain.
On August 15, Stephanie Glinski, a journalist based in South Sudan, reported for IRIN that more than 10,000 people are encamped at St. Mary’s Cathedral. “The official UN camp on the other side of the city is the most congested protection of civilians site in the country – almost 40,000 people shelter on 200,000 square meters of land (roughly the area of 25 football/soccer pitches),” Glinski reported.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 after a political dispute between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka South Sudanese politician who has been president of South Sudan since its independence in 2011, and his then vice president Riek Machar led to fighting that has pitted mostly Dinka ethnic soldiers loyal to Kiir against Machar’s Nuer ethnic group. The 2015 peace agreement to end the violence was again violated in July 2016 when the rival factions resumed fighting in the capital city of Juba, forcing Machar to flee into exile in South Africa, without that government’s knowledge. From there, Machar continues to direct the rebel forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), which is the largest armed group outside of the government.
At the same time, drought, driven in part by the El Niño weather pattern, has been exacerbated by the fighting and has caused food shortages and subsequent spikes in food prices. Earlier this year the United Nations and the government of South Sudan declared a state of famine in several parts of the fledgling country. A formal famine declaration means people have already started dying of hunger.
This past May, President Kiir declared a unilateral ceasefire and launched a national dialogue committee. The move was seen as controversial, as it excluded Machar. It wasn’t until the final days of August that Machar and other key opposition leaders were said to have “responded positively” when contacted by the committee leadership. The deputy chairperson of the committee told reporters on August 31 that they will continue to persuade the rebel leaders to join the dialogue or send representatives.
Meanwhile, the ongoing fighting has forced an estimated 4 million people to flee their homes. Uganda currently hosts more than a million South Sudanese refugees, while over 330,000 have fled to neighboring Ethiopia.
“I have quit searching for adjectives to describe the violence in South Sudan,” Mel Duncan of Nonviolent Peaceforce wrote in an email on August 31, after visiting Wau.
“Malnutrition and starvation surges amid the violence. I was with our team north of the city of Wau in an impromptu camp for internally displaced people when we encountered a newly arrived group of 680 people, mainly women and children, who were literally starving. A man showed me leaves in a pot that they had been eating.”
“Yet, amid the horror, inspiration pops up frequently,” Duncan said. “Where ever I went I heard people, especially women, starting to speak out against the war. We will stand with them. I am convinced that peace will come from the bottom up, not from the men meeting in hotels in Addis and Kampala.”
Faith in action:
- Ask Congress and the Trump administration to work with the international community to put increased pressure on the armed actors to halt the conflict, provide humanitarian access, and bring stability back to South Sudan. http://bit.ly/Act4SouthSudan
- Sign up to receive action alerts and newsletters about issues of peace and justice from the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.
Photo: Internally displaced people camping at St. Mary's Cathedral compound, Wau, South Sudan, December 8, 2016. Photo By Jill Craig (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.