The world’s youngest nation is in shreds. There was rejoicing when South Sudan gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 – relief that a cycle of unending violence had come to an end. But celebrations were barely over when President Salva Kirr sacked his vice president Riek Machar- sparking a deadly civil war in 2013.
The war has given rise to one of the biggest refugee crises in the world. In Northern Uganda alone there are over 1 milion people living in refugee camps scattered across the bush.
Budri refugee camp hugs the White Nile close to the Ugandan town of Moyo. Here we met Taban Jospeh; a father of two daughters, 8 and 15 years old. Both still trapped in their hometown of Yei in South Sudan.
“One day government soldiers threw me in jail. Accusing me of being a rebel. It’s because I’m not a Dinka,” Taban, sharing his horror story of escape, started. When they finally decided he was innocent they threw him out in the middle of the night. “The Government slaughtered us like goats in the night," Taban continued. “I risked death going back home. So I started to run.” Weeks later, after straggling across large swathes of bushland, he found himself in a refugee camp in Uganda. Word from South Sudan is that his daughters are still alive; but with no indication of peace in the near future it might be years before Taban ever sees them again.
Refugee after refugee tells the same story: of government forces lashing out against rebel forces by pillaging villages instead of fighting rebels; simply killing in cold blood- women and children. According to them President Kiir, a Dinka, and his pro-Dinka army, is highly suspicious of all the other tribes. The evidence is clear that the war is raging along tribal lines, raising legitimate fears of genocide and ethnic cleansing. “It is tribal, it is absolutely tribal, so on that basis it is genocide,” said Priti Patel, Britain’s secretary for international development, after a visit to South Sudan earlier this year.
A few days later we visit the Bidi-bidi refugee camp. With over 300 000 people it is the largest camp in the world. Conditions in the camps are basic but relief agencies appear to be working hard on improvements. Uganda has been praised for its welcoming refugee policy. Every family receives a 30x30 metre plot of land where they can erect a basic mud structure and cultivate the earth. In some of the camps the soil is fertile and the maize head high.
Our guide, a local pastor, leads us to a single mom, Victoria. We take in the scene: a small mud structure, just high enough to crawl into, draped with a UNHCR tarp for the roof. Two toddlers with runny noses stay close. Her pretty dress made no secret that she would be expecting soon.
After arriving safely in the camp her husband had returned to their farm in South Sudan to look for food, she tells us. Once there he was shot dead. We put our hands on her, trying to provide some comfort. As we pray for her big tear drops silently run down her cheeks. The small bag of maize, salt and soap we give her is a welcome relief and will last them for a month. (The UN distributes 12kg of sorghum, 1 litre of oil and 4kg beans per person per month, but has struggled to keep up with demand and is late from time to time). The camp is strewn with stories and people in similar situations- our physical contribution less than a drop in the bucket. Yet we pray that the Holy Spirit will move and comfort people. While a tremendous effort is being put into the logistical workings of the camp, very few are engaging with the hard work of prayer, discipleship and counselling.
Earlier that morning we had stepped into a church service. The structure was basic- rough pole and UNHCR tarps for a roof. In the front praying was a young South Sudanese girl, “Lord you said that if your people will humble themselves and pray, then you will heal their land.” She quoted from 2 Chronicles 4:17. “Heal our land Lord, bring peace to South Sudan.”
Stirred by their faith and love for their young country our voices went up with their voices; knowing that prayer was the best thing to do. Perhaps the only thing really.
All pray and dream of peace in South Sudan; but with government leaders appearing to be unwilling to negotiate a peace deal the when, for now, remains elusive. In the meantime many of their own are suffering the tremendous consequences.
Written by Willem Taute