Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

South Sudan – Is there hope?

Cecil the Lion is dead. In an act that has been rightly criticized all over the world, a Minnesota dentist traveled to Zimbabwe and paid a lot of money to wound the iconic lion and then chase him for two days before finally killing the animal and skinning him to take home a “trophy” to his perverted sense of manhood. The resulting scandal illustrates well how the fate of charismatic megafauna gets inordinate attention in both traditional and social media, while the steady extinction of lesser-loved species of insects and amphibians, for example, elicits hardly a tear from most of us.

The contrast is just as stark if we compare the attention Cecil’s killing received with the world’s reaction to the violence in South Sudan. Since a political dispute ripped the country along tribal and ethnic lines in December 2013, South Sudan has plunged into hell. If the same level of violence had occurred in many other parts of the world, it would be front page news. Alas, it’s just one more story of senseless death in Africa, so it gets filed under “nothing we can do about it.” Better to celebrate the return of Bloom County.

I covered life in South Sudan in 2014, accompanying ordnance disposal teams and photographing people who had fled the fighting as they came out of the bush after weeks of eating only leaves, sleeping in the open as they waited for help from aid agencies–aid which sometimes materialized and sometimes didn’t. I returned in 2015 to find a country from which three-quarters of a million people have fled as refugees to neighboring countries, while some 1.6 million are displaced from their homes inside the country. Most of them are farmers, and the fighting has kept them from growing food to feed themselves. The result is mass starvation, about which aid agencies have been warning for more than a year. Yet dying people in South Sudan aren’t as charismatic as lions, so much of the media has occupied themselves with chasing other stories, from the ebola outbreak to Donald Trump’s hair, rather than wrestle with the complicated and heartbreaking violence in South Sudan. Wasn’t that the country that became independent in 2011? We like happy endings, so we’re reluctant to reopen the story.

Fortunately, not all have turned away. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has done an excellent job over the years of covering Sudan and South Sudan, and is now taking videographers with him. He recently filed this moving video report about starvation in South Sudan. And he hasn’t forgotten those in neighboring Sudan who continue to live under daily bombardment from the war criminals in Khartoum. The conflict in South Sudan did get some attention as President Barack Obama visited the region in July, with advice and counsel and prescriptions for peace from several sources, but when his plane took off from Addis Ababa the press started gazing elsewhere.

Just as the bad news about South Sudan isn’t being widely told, neither is the good news. During five weeks I spent there earlier this year, I tried to maintain some balance, recognizing that amidst the death there are many working for life. I particularly worked on finding stories of how the church continues to accompany the people of South Sudan. That in itself is a complicated story with a long history, and it’s often a story of risk and sacrifice where the church finds an opportunity to do what it does best: stand beside people who are oppressed and accompany them as they work for justice and peace. Not to mention breaking out the drums and tambourines when it’s time to celebrate Easter, as here inside a United Nations base in Juba where thousands of Nuer have fled for protection.

Women sing during a Roman Catholic Mass on Easter morning, April 5, inside a United Nations base in Juba, South Sudan, where some 34,000 people have sought protection since violence broke out in December 2013. More than 112,000 people currently live on UN bases in the war-torn country, most of them afraid of tribally targeted violence. The Catholic Church has maintained a pastoral presence inside the camps. (Paul Jeffrey)

Some of this year’s images that stand out for me include those of women like Nyanthak Arop Mahadi, the midwife seen here examining Nyankiir Makuac Deng in a church-sponsored clinic in Mading Achueng, a village in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned–despite renewed attacks by the north–with support from the Catholic Church, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. Nyanthak struck me as emblematic of that sense of accompaniment in a very dangerous context, literally bringing life into being.

Nyanthak Arop Mahadi, a midwife, examines Nyankiir Makuac Deng in the Caritas clinic in Mading Achueng, a village in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. (Paul Jeffrey)

Mike Bassano impressed me in a similar fashion. He’s a Maryknoll priest from the United States who is living inside the U.N. base in Malakal among thousands of civilians who fled there for their safety as the city became a free-fire zone. Here’s an article I wrote about Mike and his work, which includes a compelling story about his discovery of the suffering Christ on Good Friday.

Father Mike Bassano, a Maryknoll priest from the United States, comforts a newly displaced man resting on the floor of a makeshift Catholic chapel inside a United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan. More than 20,000 civilians have lived inside the base since shortly after the country's civil war broke out in December, 2013, but renewed fighting in 2015 drove another 5,000 people, including this man, into the relative safety of the camp. Bassano lives in the camp to accompany the people there. (Paul Jeffrey)

I also documented how people of faith are helping feed the hungry. That happens two ways. There’s the organized response of church aid agencies, but just as important is the solidarity of ordinary people as they welcome the displaced into their communities, no matter that the newcomers may speak a different language or belong to a different tribe.

Martha Yar uses a hoe to prepare the ground for planting at the Multi Agricultural Jesuit Institute of Sudan (MAJIS), an agricultural school located outside Rumbek, South Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

When South Sudan's civil war broke out in Juba in December 2013, Nejent Justin fled from the fighting to Mundri, where she has relatives. She has survived there thanks to the hospitality of her relatives, along with food and agricultural tools provided by the Mundri Relief and Development Association, which is supported by the Primate's World Relief and Development Fund. Her uncle let Justin, 16, use some land to farm peanuts. Here she displays some of her harvest. (Paul Jeffrey)

Afaf Ngor clears a field for planting near the remains of her former home in Mading Achueng, a village in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, including Ngor, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. (Paul Jeffrey)

When South Sudan's civil war spread to Malakal in late 2013, Rose Apol (right) fled with her three children, walking through the bush for a month to arrive in Mundri, where she lives with a brother. She has survived thanks to the hospitality of her relatives and food and agricultural tools provided by the Mundri Relief and Development Association, which is supported by the Primate's World Relief and Development Fund. Here she works with members of her extended family to shell peanuts she has harvested. (Paul Jeffrey)

A woman waters the crops at the Multi Agricultural Jesuit Institute of Sudan (MAJIS), an agricultural school located outside Rumbek, South Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

Growing food can be risky nowadays in South Sudan. Along the country’s southern border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a church agency is helping people long displaced by the Lord’s Resistance Army to grow crops as they return home, even though they must remain armed to defend against sporadic attacks from the LRA.

Once displaced by terrorist attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army, farmers in Gangura, South Sudan, are once again farming their fields with seeds, tools and technical support from Caritas, and with protection from the Arrow Boys, local self-defense militia groups established to defend against LRA attacks. Erisha Dowdy is a leader of the local unit of the Arrow Boys, and, carrying a homemade shotgun, here guards other residents of Gangura as they work in their fields, including Vicki Paulino, who is watering plants. The LRA attacked Gangura in early March, 2015, kidnapping 13 people. The Arrow Boys eventually drove off the attackers, killing one and losing one of their own members. The farmers group is supported by the diocese of Tombura-Yambio and Caritas Austria. (Paul Jeffrey)

Churches are involved in whatever is necessary to sustain life in the midst of war, whether it’s shelter assistance in Abyei, a well for war-displaced families in Mundri, or a displaced girl getting her family’s sorghum ground at a church-sponsored mill run by widows in Agok.

Akuei Lual fastens branches together to make a roof for his house in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. (Paul Jeffrey)

When South Sudan's civil war spread to Malakal in late 2013, Alice Sura escaped from the fighting by taking refuge inside the United Nations base there with eight children--two of her own and six belonging to her relatives. Two days later, she was evacuated to Juba, and then came to Mundri, where she was born. She and the eight children have survived thanks to the hospitality of her relatives and food provided by the Mundri Relief and Development Association, which is supported by the Primate's World Relief and Development Fund. Here she pumps water from a well to carry to her temporary house. (Paul Jeffrey)

Wunrock Langar carries home sorghum meal from a Caritas-sponsored grinding mill run by widows in a displaced persons camp in Agok, South Sudan. Tens of thousands of residents of Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, remain displaced in Agok. Under a 2005 peace agreement, Abyei was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of Abyei's Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into Agok. More than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned to Abyei with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. Yet continuing insecurity means a greater number remain in Agok, where they remain dependant on Caritas and other organizations for food and other support. (Paul Jeffrey)

As the government has turned more and more of its resources to fighting those it perceives as its enemies, it has fewer resources to dedicate to education, leaving the church to do what it has done well in many places in Africa–educating the poor.

A girl writes the alphabet on a chalkboard at the Loreto Primary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. The school is run by the Institute for the Blessed Virgin Mary--the Loreto Sisters--of Ireland. (Paul Jeffrey)

Classes are held outdoors at the Loreto Primary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. The school is run by the Institute for the Blessed Virgin Mary--the Loreto Sisters--of Ireland. (Paul Jeffrey)

Students work together on an experiment in the chemistry lab at the Loreto Secondary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. The school is run by the Institute for the Blessed Virgin Mary--the Loreto Sisters--of Ireland. (Paul Jeffrey)

Sister Mariya Soosai, a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, leads a group of children in an arithmetic class in a camp for internally displaced families inside a United Nations base in Juba, South Sudan. Some 34,000 people have sought protection here since violence broke out in December 2013. More than 112,000 people currently live on UN bases in the war-torn country, most of them afraid of tribally targeted violence. Ten DMI sisters from India work in the Juba camp, providing counseling and psycho-social support for women and children, teaching children in makeshift schools, and providing food to hungry families. (Paul Jeffrey)
The same is true for health care. In Wau, I returned once again to document the amazing work done by the dedicated folks at the Saint Joseph Comboni Hospital. This visit included an opportunity to photograph a Caesarean section–and the moment in which Fatima Nakuyioko first sees her new baby.

Fatima Nakuyioko takes a look at her baby, moments after it was born via Caesarean section in the St. Daniel Comboni Catholic Hospital in Wau, South Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

From the frustrating peace talks in Addis Ababa to working out the nuts and bolts of reconciliation on the ground in rural villages, the church is present, often encouraging people not to trust the important decisions to corrupt political leaders, but rather to assume the vocation of building peace as their own. Such peacebuilding often has its own rhythm, as seen here in a women’s peace event in Abyei.

Women dance during a conference on peacebuilding in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. Peace remains elusive, however, and Caritas is supporting a series of conferences between all the stakeholders in the area. (Paul Jeffrey)

Women--including one with ankle rattles--dance during a conference on peacebuilding in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. Peace remains elusive, however, and Caritas is supporting a series of conferences between all the stakeholders in the area. (Paul Jeffrey)

My hosts for much of the time I was in South Sudan were the folks from Solidarity with South Sudan, an international network of faith communities responding together to the ongoing crisis in the country. Although they’re all Catholics, they warmly welcomed me despite the fact I often mumbled the words of the liturgy they all know so well. Their members working around the country–Mike Bassano is a good example–are deeply committed to empowering the South Sudanese to survive and thrive and, ultimately, to build themselves the new country about which they dreamed for so long. Their vocation is to walk beside the people of South Sudan, no matter how difficult the road or obscure the destination.

A girl looks at Sister Cathy Arata, a School Sister of Notre Dame from New Jersey, during a women's conference on peacebuilding in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Under a 2005 peace agreement, the region was supposed to have a referendum to decide which country it would join, but the two countries have yet to agree on who can vote. In 2011, militias aligned with Khartoum drove out most of the Dinka Ngok residents, pushing them across a river into the town of Agok. Yet more than 40,000 Dinka Ngok have since returned with support from Caritas South Sudan, which has drilled wells, built houses, opened clinics and provided seeds and tools for the returnees. Peace remains elusive, however, and Caritas is supporting a series of conferences between all the stakeholders in the area. Sister Arata works with Solidarity with South Sudan, a network of Catholic groups supporting education and pastoral work in the new African country. (Paul Jeffrey)

 

One Response to South Sudan – Is there hope?

  1. Wayne F. Hansen, RN, NP-C, MSN, CCRN, CEN says:

    Great pictures and thoughtful writing. I would love to hear more–maybe we could do something together at some point. You take pictures (maybe look at some of mine) and help write or vice versa and I could help some sick people–or healthy people or whatever! You have my address and card. If your schedule permits perhaps you could come over for dinner and we could talk. thanks wayne

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