In South Sudan, 'everything they are doing, they are doing with tears'

A child at the Gumbo camp outside of Juba, South Sudan (Chris Herlinger)
A child at the Gumbo camp outside of Juba, South Sudan (Chris Herlinger)

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Editor's Note: Chris Herlinger wrote the following article while on assignment with Global Sisters Report, a project of NCR. Visit the website at to read another report from Herlinger on the situation in South Sudan.

It is not that what happened in Gumbo was so dramatic. It wasn't. It is not that Gumbo is an example of the worst in South Sudan. It isn't.

But Gumbo, a small hamlet just west across the Nile River from the capital of Juba, is emblematic of some of South Sudan's considerable challenges and seemingly intractable problems following months of violence that have resulted in thousands dead, hundreds of thousands -- perhaps as many as 1 million -- displaced and uprooted, and a political crisis that seems to be getting worse, not better.

Take the issue of the displaced. There are about 120 families who have fled various types of violence in the last three months and settled in Gumbo, a dusty high-plain area that affords a handsome view of Juba and the hills of nearby Nisitu.

The camp is best described as bare-bones: a sparse settlement of donated tents; food provided weekly by the Salesians of Don Bosco; and regular pastoral visits and clothing brought by the Daughters of St. Paul. It is an exposed and vulnerable place, unprotected from the high winds and seasonal rains that have just arrived, sometimes with a vengeance.

It does have a few saving graces. One is that it is not overly crowded -- a marked contrast to the Tomping camp, a displacement site run by the United Nations where conditions have been harshly condemned by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The U.N., MSF said in an April 9 statement, has shown "a shocking display of indifference" toward conditions in the camp.

Yet even in a place that is nowhere as crowded as Tomping, there is something quietly desperate about Gumbo. It seems lethargic, spent of energy. A key reason: the lived experiences of the camp's residents. Except for an occasional soldier passing through, there are no adult males here -- this is a camp of children and women who fled to Juba for safety from the violence in the city of Bor.

Some of the woman already know they are widows; some yet don't.

"We don't know what happened to the men," said Christina Atoo, 20, the mother of two children. She is not sure if her husband perished in violence or is still alive, recruited for armed service. "We don't know," Atoo repeated.

Of her new surroundings, Atoo takes some comfort "that at least we can be among ourselves and cook."

Yet Atoo and the other women were already vulnerable before the violence, said Sr. Anne Kiragu of the Daughters of St. Paul. Many cannot read or write, Kiragu said, and they are at a distinct disadvantage because they speak Beri, a language not easily understood by many of those who speak the more common vernacular languages of Juba Arabic and English.

Though the women have organized themselves some since coming to the area in February, in the most essential ways, "they are dependent on whatever comes," Kiragu said. "There is no home for them except this."

More broadly, Ayot Lilli John, a host of a weekly program at a Catholic radio station in Juba, noted that during displacement crises, it is women and children who bear the effects of war's terrors. They must struggle to secure the basics of food and shelter. "Everything they are doing," she said, "they are doing with tears."

If the violence of the last months has put increasing numbers of women and children at risk, it has also called into question South Sudan's short-term and long-term future. Few, if any, believe that the calm that has descended on Juba for now is anything but a temporary lull in an unresolved political crisis that has bled into ethnic conflict, though still has deep political undertones.

At its roots, many observers say, is a power struggle between various political factions generally and between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, specifically. At times, the crisis has dissolved into ethnic violence, in part because of rumor and hearsay and fears by both the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups that they are being targeted for their ethnicity. (A welcome note was struck Friday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Juba, said Kiir has agreed to open peace talks with Machar as early as next week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.)

The deteriorating situation could spell disaster in a number of ways. Earlier this month, U.N. officials, usually not given to hyperbole on the issue of hunger and famine, said as many as 1 million could face famine if action is not taken quickly in South Sudan.

At the root of that problem: the massive amount of displacement that has forced tens of thousands off their land, unable to plant crops.

"Millions are going hungry today -- and we are seeing evidence of extremely high levels of malnutrition among hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict -- especially women and children," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Concurrent with that worry is that if more is not done to bolster access to food in the country, nearly a quarter of a million children in South Sudan could suffer severe malnutrition by the end of the year, UNICEF said.

Such concerns come amid a backdrop of severe sadness, exasperation and even anger. What frustrates both South Sudanese and others living here is the sense that following decades of war with Sudan to achieve independence -- a victory savored briefly following independence in 2011 -- the recent violence has severely set back the young country.

"It's as if the country was just making progress, and then it not only stops, but gets worse," said Kiragu, a Kenyan.

Not all signs in the country are laced with tragedy. There are occasional hints of a return to normalcy in Juba, where streets in December were littered with bullets. Children have returned to school, and on the way to Gumbo, it was possible to see the occasional residents of rural villages who fled violence getting on trucks, preparing for journeys back home.

Yet much seems in limbo.

For two years, the Salesians have operated a vocational training school in Gumbo. They have struggled to find trainers or instructors. Progress was just being made when the violence of December erupted. While there are still students at the training school -- more than 150 in all -- the numbers have declined since the violence began.

Moreover, said Fr. Joseph Nguyen Duc Can, a Vietnamese priest, whatever training is happening is set against underlying structural economic problems. Students can be trained in vocations, but there are still not enough jobs or companies to provide jobs. "That's one of the challenges of our students here," he said. "The country does not have these companies."

If political stability comes, then economic growth may follow. "If you're stable, then you're fine. But you have to start first."

'A slow war of attrition'

The immediate signs for stability are not good and have worsened considerably even in recent days, with the U.N. saying that anti-government rebels killed hundreds recently in the strategic oil-producing town of Bentiu. Civilians were targeted by ethnicity and nationality, according to reports, and at least 200 were slain in a mosque. Radio broadcasts in the affected area included hate speech and threats of sexual violence against women.

Also killed: patients in hospitals, following a horrific pattern of violence in other locales that now has become all-too common.

"We are horrified by reports out of South Sudan that fighters aligned with rebel leader Riek Machar massacred hundreds of innocent civilians last week in Bentiu," the White House said in a statement condemning the violence.

 Even before recent reports of massacres, some raised the specter of ethnic violence, which could spiral into something horrific along the lines of Rwanda-like genocide.

Such talk is amended with caution. One resident of South Sudan with ties to the church and other parties in ongoing peace negotiations cautioned against using the word "genocide," saying that, despite the horrors of ethnic targeting, the word "genocide" has "become undervalued."

However, in the wake of recent events, this resident said: "The reports of hate speech and incitement over the radio are indeed worrying."

Others speak of violence with the hope that the church could be a hoped-for mediator.

In an April 1 interview with NCR and Catholic News Service in Juba, longtime peace activist Bishop Paride Taban spoke of the need for the church to take a lead in ongoing peace negotiations and acknowledged that political leaders have, in effect, given lip service to the church as a mediator in solving the country's problems.

Of a possible Rwanda-type situation, the retired bishop said the church would have to deal with any inevitability. "The church will try its best," he said.

John Ashworth, a longtime observer of events in the country, acknowledged that the short-term prospects for the country do not look good. "It's going to be a slow war of attrition," he said in an April 8 interview with NCR. "The default reaction is to fight."

In the long term, however, he believes the country will be able to find a path ahead, though that will depend "on not stitching up a deal between a few leaders but rather finding a long-term solution that is acceptable to the people."

"I can't see the way forward (immediately) but I think we'll solve it," he said. "I think the voice of the ordinary people will (become) stronger. The sad question is how many people will die before we get through it. But we will get through."

Hopefully. But the signs are not immediately promising.

On a recent Sunday, at one of the U.N. camps in Juba, Fr. Antonio LaBraca, 77, an Italian Comboni missionary who has spent 18 years among South Sudan's Nuers, celebrated Mass outdoors and spoke in his homily about forgiveness, reconciliation and the need, however difficult, to love one's enemies.

LaBraca acknowledged that there are numerous hurdles ahead in doing that, requiring equal parts forgiveness and justice.

"This is the difficulty," he said of the Nuers he has served. "They are wounded. And you just can't say 'reconciliation' just like that," he said with a snap of the fingers.

Several young men who attended Mass agreed, saying reconciliation is difficult and will not be easy. As Juba residents afraid to return to their neighborhoods, they are still willing to give it a go. But, they added, they believe a new interim government will be needed to try to defuse the overall tense political situation.

In the meantime, they have no plans to leave the camp, however horrific the conditions. They are afraid for their lives. "We could still be killed, and we don't know how long the fighting will go on," said John Khalid Mamun, 32.

Expressing general exasperation, he said: "It is the politicians. You divide them and then you rule them," Mamun said mockingly of what politicians have done to the nation's populace.

Sr. Amala Francis, a project coordinator for the Daughters of Mary Immaculate Sisters and the work the sisters do among the displaced, noted the particular frustrations of a bereaved country and a wounded national civic life. For the moment, she said, leaders have lost sight of what she called "continuous development" to help South Sudan's poor majority.

In other words, those like Christina Atoo of the Gumbo camp, who were already vulnerable to the ever-constants of poverty and hunger, of violence and uncertainty.

"So now it starts," Francis said, "at the 'zero point' again."

[Chris Herlinger is a contributing writer to NCR on humanitarian and international issues. He has reported on South Sudan and Darfur for NCR and is the co-author of the book Where Mercy Fails: Darfur's Struggle to Survive. He is also the senior writer for the humanitarian agency Church World Service.] 

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