A war-torn country

The people of South Sudan seek life beyond conflict

Looking across a map of Africa in current times, one is left to wonder how two conflicts, both marked by civil strife, massive displacement of peoples and allegations of the worst human rights violations are prioritised by the international community.

Perusing any good map (one published post-2011, mind) one finds at the heart of that great continent the neighbouring nations of Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. Approximately equal in size, and existing along virtually the same line of latitude, some unknown twist of fate has nevertheless seen CAR dominate coverage from the region even as violent bloodletting continues almost totally ignored in South Sudan.

This is not a situation that can be laid at the feet of the world media, so fickle and ready in our ‘breaking news’ culture to move rapidly on to the next trouble spot. With both countries’ conflicts having flared in December, a sense of battle fatigue does not explain the disparity, and in fact, the neighbouring disputes, so far from resolution, leave frontline correspondents spoiled for choice in terms of headline-grabbing narratives.

It was on December 15 that South Sudan degenerated into factional fighting after groups loyal to President Salva Kiir and the now former President Riek Machar Bega engaged in a bloody power struggle.

Cue the inevitable civilian suffering and unheeded calls for negotiation. The latter has proved true since a supposed ceasefire was agreed for January 23, after which the guns failed to fall silent, leading to a drive for a fresh date for renewed talks – currently set for March 20.

It was all supposed to be so different. When established as the world’s newest nation in 2011, necessitating those map upgrades, South Sudan’s future seemed somewhat brighter. A nation for those sub-Saharan people who had been second-class citizens next to the Arabic population of the north in Sudan as it formerly existed, the breakaway state offered the chance for them to finally dictate their own fates.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic last week on his brief return to Ireland, Spiritan missionary Fr John Skinnader, who has been in South Sudan for a year now, confirms the keen eagerness of many in the country to do just that.


“The people are desperate for education,” he said, elucidating the underlying recognition among South Sudanese that it is through education that they become empowered to change their own fortunes.  (This is especially true for girls, whose value in society is normally based on how many cattle they bring to a marriage.)

“There is a divide on the education issue,” he acknowledged. “There are those who cling to a more traditional way of life, based solidly on the ownership of cattle. Then there are the prospective students, those who seek education as a means to change their lives and connect to the wider world.”

The desire raises an interesting fact about life in South Sudan. According to Fr John, in the absence of newspapers, radios and internet, enterprising individuals have found a keen market for premiership football via satellite tv, and it is not uncommon to find a television brought into a community to allow people to enjoy the exploits of Manchester United, or Chelsea, or any one of the leading premiership teams while gaining a window on the outside world.

“People know the names of all the famous players,” Fr John said.

The anecdote paints a picture of very ordinary people, happily engaging in a pursuit in no way alien to other nations.

Fr John happily pointed out, too, the massive attendance at Catholic worship in his parish in Wulu, a market township of some 40,000 people south-west of the town of Rumbeck in the Lakes state. With a huge population of young people, Fr John admitted that he and his fellow clerics, one from Tanzania and one from Kenya struggle in their aim to provide good faith formation, but that “there is a great hunger for the Gospel”.

Sadly, where here is Wulu, there is also Malakal, a city in Nile state, far to the country’s north east which has borne a heavy toll in the latest conflict.

It is an area recently visited by Fr John, where he sought to witness and report on the suffering of displaced people in refugee camps there.


Far from the luxury of television, ordinary citizens are maintaining a precarious existence based on the distribution of food aid every three weeks; adding to the misery, the Spiritan reported a dearth of shelters and tents as South Sudan faces into another rainy season.

It is much to Fr John’s credit, a missionary who has ministered in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Angola and Burundi, that having witnessed the full impact of the conflict in South Sudan on its most vulnerable that he remains convinced that he sees the fledgling nation as God “keeping the best wine till last” for him.

Against this, sadly, as Fr John was speaking with The Irish Catholic, it was announced from South Sudan that four politicians imprisoned since the outset of the current crisis and held by forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, were to be charged with treason and inciting violence.

The charges were announced despite the earlier statement, by opposition rebels, that their release was a pre-condition for those fresh peace talks in Ethiopia on March 20.

If there is any room for positivity at this point, it surely lies within another anecdote shared by Fr John, arising from Christmas celebrations in Wulu, when a community so eager to have more in common with the global community than just a love of football chose a simple prayer intention for the year ahead.

“We are a people defined by war,” they prayed, “we don’t want any more.”

Fr John Skinnader can be contacted at john.skinnader@gmail.com