Displaced persons meeting pope underscore South Sudan’s overlapping crises
Africa’s largest displacement crisis has seen almost 4.5 million people flee their homes in South Sudan due to deadly civil wars and environmental disasters. Pope Francis was due to meet with some of them on February 4 during his three-day “ecumenical pilgrimage” to the country with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and Rev. Iain Greenshields, leader of the Church of Scotland.
Since 2013, the world’s youngest nation, which declared independence in 2011, has been gripped by violence ranging from concentrated attacks between rival ethnic groups to a full-blown civil war. In 2015, a peace deal was signed between the two main warring factions, only to fall apart a year later. A renewed peace agreement was signed in 2018.
“There is a peace agreement, but there is still active sub-national violence,” Charlotte Hallqvist, an official with the UN refugee agency UNHCR in South Sudan, told the Catholic News Service on February 2. “Ethnic conflicts are increasing.”
Fueling the evictions is an “overlap of crises,” she said. South Sudan is entering its fourth year of historic flooding, which has only deepened tensions between ethnic groups.
“South Sudan has always had floods, but the seasonal floods are not going away, leading people to move to regions traditionally populated by members of other ethnic groups,” Hallqvist said. “This leads to competition for land and resources that fuels ethnic tensions.”
“What we’re seeing are waves of displacement,” she told CNS. “People have not been displaced once, but twice, three times, four times,” she said.
Thousands of these displaced people end up in United Nations-run Protection of Civilians sites akin to refugee camps, like the one in Malakal, where Father Michael Bassano, a Maryknoll missionary from Binghamton, New York, has worked since 2013. He estimates that between 40,000 and 50,000 people currently live there.
Father Bassano ministers to the Catholic community at the Malakal site, which is made up of about 2,000 people mainly from three ethnic groups. Two of them, the Shilluk and the Nuer, continue to actively fight each other in the country’s Upper Nile State.
“We have said that we will only have a church if all ethnic groups are involved,” he told CNS. “There was opposition to praying with people from the other group, but we have said over and over in the church that if we are a family of God, we must overcome those divisions.”
Father Bassano was due to introduce several displaced people from the Malakal site to Pope Francis during the Pope’s February 4 meeting with IDPs from across the country.
The Pope’s visit, said Father Bassano, shows those with whom he works “that people are praying for them and caring for them at this time when violence continues. They need to be encouraged that they can have peace and the violence will end.”
“These people have literally nothing, they have lost their land, their livelihoods and their homes. Yet they survive in the camps because of their beliefs,” he said.