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South Sudan: what’s happening, and why does the Pope want to visit?

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Why doesn't South Sudan find peace?

Nearly four years of war, and millions of displaced people: one of the most serious conflicts in the world today. Since 2011, South Sudan has been independent from Sudan. Nevertheless, a year and a half after the country became independent, a horrific war broke out which is still causing many deaths every day. What are the key causes of this conflict? What are the obstacles on the path to peace?

The current war: This conflict, which started in 2013, involves a confrontation between the country’s president and vice-president, who come from two different ethnic groups: the Dinka and the Nuer. On one hand, there is the Dinka president, Salva Kiir; on the other, the Nuer rebel leader and ex-vice-president, Riek Machar. Four years ago, in the face of Machar’s criticisms, President Kiir reacted not as a democratic leader ought, but rather as if he were a military dictator: seeing Machar’s differences of opinion as a threat to his power, Kiir fired him, explains journalist Xavier Aldekoa in his book Hijos del Nilo (“Sons of the Nile,” Peninsula publishers). The international community pressured the two to negotiate, and the conflicting parties signed a peace treaty in August 2015, which created a transition government in April 2016. Nevertheless, two months later (in July), a conflict broke out again between the two main signers of the accord and their followers.

Past wars: “People were scared, because no one fears war more than those who have already lived through its horrors,” says Aldekoa in his book, narrating his time in the country in the summer of 2016. South Sudan was born from two conflicts, which lasted a total of nearly four decades, starting in 1955: the first, which lasted from 1955 to 1972, and the second, from 1983 to 2005. The wars were separated by an 11-year ceasefire. South Sudan’s independence in 2011 (supported by the United States, because of clear interests in the country’s oil) brought peace and hope to the region.

Petroleum and poverty: Before independence, the south produced 85% of the country’s oil. However, one of its primary sources of wealth is also one of the main reasons for the conflict which is causing its drastic poverty. In addition to ethnic differences, South Sudan’s lack of direct access to the ocean to export oil, and its difficulties in coming to a transportation agreement through Sudan, were causes of the past wars and are still in the background of the current conflict. The country’s economic situation deteriorated when, in January of 2012, the South Sudanese government decided to stop producing oil because of bilateral disagreements with Sudan. Currently, the country’s inflation rate is at 800%.

Humanitarian crisis: the conflict between the government and the opposition has resulted in a great humanitarian crisis, with more than two million South Sudanese being displaced within the country and almost another million emigrating to neighboring countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Last February, a famine was officially declared.

Maternal mortality: South Sudan is one of the countries with the highest maternal mortality rates, for various reasons such as the lack of health services, inadequate infrastructure, and traditions that make many women begin to have children very young, giving birth at home with assistance, such that it is more difficult to overcome complications during pregnancy and birth.

Education: Less than a third of the population is literate. In fact, 85% of the population cannot read. The reason for this is the lack of resources, as well as the problem of displacement because of the conflict.

Religion: The main religions in South Sudan are Christianity and various animistic faiths which have a strong presence in the country. In Sudan, Islam is the dominant religion. This difference is also a cause of conflict. Nevertheless, “in times of war, religions can contribute many opportunities for dialogue and for building peace,” explains Pau Vidal, a Spanish Jesuit who is working at the refugee camp in Maban (South Sudan). He shared his thoughts during an interview he granted a few weeks ago to the Signes dels temps (“Signs of the Times”) program on Catalonian Television. The missionary relates how the people there live their religiosity joyfully; “It’s an element of hope, which informs their daily life. Masses last nearly two hours, because they are the time when people get together and celebrate, despite the difficulties. They are evidence that we still have meaning in our lives, and celebrate life,” he said.

Vidal already told us two years ago that the situation was alarming.

Vidal, a Jesuit priest, studied architecture and theology, as well as obtaining a master’s degree in migration theology, a recent discipline which seeks to investigate the experience of God that is revealed in those who experience displacement. “It’s a matter of recognizing Jesus in the person who knocks at your door,” he emphasizes in the interview. “This is a complex and not very encouraging situation,” he says. “We are passing through a dark night, accompanying the people during a difficult time,” he adds, referring to both the refugees and the local inhabitants of the area. Jesuit action there is centered on education, pastoral work, and social work. “If we don’t prepare engineers, professors, or doctors now—even though we’re in the middle of a conflict—the future will never arrive,” he explains.

The people of South Sudan, Vidal says, “need to live their life with meaning and need to be able to imagine a different tomorrow. That isn’t easy in a refugee camp, and yet despite it all, this desire is very present.” Then he adds, “Life finds a way forward in the face of very traumatic experiences; from a Christian perspective, this is the resurrection, which is more important than death.”

For now, as Aleteia announced in November, the Pope has had to decline to travel to South Sudan in 2017, due to the civil war. “The Pope’s voyage to South Sudan, although it was being studied, will not take place this year,” said papal spokesman Greg Burke.

Francis, speaking to a delegation of Sudanese bishops last May, had proposed the idea of traveling to the African country accompanied by Anglican leader Justin Welby to put into action “the ecumenism of charity” in the context of the grave humanitarian crisis being faced by the continent’s youngest nation.

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