Humanitarian Spotlight: Pau Vidal, S.J

August 18, 2014
South Sudan: Innocence Suffers in Conflict
By Pau Vidal, S.J.

Maban, 13 August 2014 — Alvar and I, the two new Jesuit members of the Jesuit Refugee Service team here, arrived in Maban (Upper Nile state) almost a month ago. More than 127,000 refugees from Sudan came here in late 2011 — early 2012, and are living in four very large camps in a precarious situation.

These refugees find themselves caught between two wars, the one at home (Sudan) and the other one in the country that currently hosts them (South Sudan). Literally they have nowhere to lay their heads.

Amidst all the challenges, JRS managed to start a teacher training for about 150 teachers; the teachers came from the four refugee camps as well as the host community. According to recent data, more than 80% of the teachers in the camps have not finished primary school themselves, so there is still a long way to go to achieve quality education.

JRS has also launched a psychosocial programme to train peer counsellors, to support the extremely vulnerable population (so far, JRS has been doing regular home visits to 245 individuals) and to support youth in the camps with some sports activities.

One really thought that the lives of the refugees were tough enough and that things could hardly get any worse. But, in South Sudan, things seem to go from bad to worse, so last week it was the time for Maban.

In the afternoon of Sunday, 3 August, fighting started in Bunj town (the capital of Maban county) with gunshots and heavy shelling around the market area. Alvar and I were attending a funeral in a nearby village. Without delay, we walked, quickly, toward the nearest UN compound.

A wave of hundreds of terrified women and children running away from town overtook us. It was hard to believe that the people from the host community were running for their lives toward the refugee camps. A few months earlier there had been tensions between the refugees and the host community, but in this critical moment the Mabanese people were welcomed to safety by the refugees.

Running myself for my life amidst those women and children I felt a knot in my stomach and wondered who on earth gains anything from this senseless war that has already left enough victims? Up to now it is not too clear what exactly triggered the recent fighting in Bunj town. Some claim that a unit of government soldiers defected to join the opposition forces, but even that has not been confirmed. The sense of uncertainty is one of the most difficult things to cope with in times of conflict.

During the mayhem at least six humanitarian aid workers were targeted and killed due to their ethnicity. The Maban Defence Forces (an armed local militia) have been blamed for these heinous killings. These tragic events have brought strong condemnation from the international community.

After two days of uncertainty, humanitarian workers were advised to evacuate to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and to leave only behind a few staff. All JRS staff were asked to leave Maban. We were flown to safety to Malakal on a World Food Programme (WFP) flight and then loaded into cargo planes and brought to Juba. It is still fresh in my mind the large crowd of refugees congregated at the dirt airstrip near Bunj town looking at the spectacle of so many humanitarian workers leaving in haste. Their faces showed disbelief and fear of being left alone. That moment was a difficult one for us. We had just recently come to be with them, to journey with them, to accompany them, but we were leaving the refugees behind in their most difficult moment.

The evacuation of more than 240 humanitarian workers has catastrophic consequences for the refugees as well as the host community. Most activities came to a stand still, even the life-saving ones such as food distribution. For the refugees, who have no means of survival, the meagre food ration distributed by WFP is essential for their life. Mothers cannot manage hearing their children day after day cry of hunger.

The local government has assured agencies that events like this will not be repeated. That being said, unless the people responsible are brought to book, impunity will breed more violence as the recent report by Human Rights Watch has clearly demonstrated. In addition to this, if the South Sudanese leaders who have been at loggerheads for eight months do not finally find a compromise, the already critical situation in the country can turn into a real catastrophe. At local level the security situation in Maban seems to be improving bit by bit, thus JRS team hopes to be back on the ground very soon to restart the activities.

A good friend and fellow Jesuit working with JRS, Jaime Moreno, once told me that being with JRS often means touching the absolute failure of humanity. Following the inspiration of St Ignatius of Loyola we are invited not to avoid such experience, but rather to dwell in the failure of the world and to try to discover its deepest meaning. In the third week of the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola invites us to contemplate Jesus on the cross. That silent and sorrowful contemplation opens up the possibility of finding God even in a tragic event such as the brutal death of an innocent victim.

Today in Maban, a remote corner of South Sudan, the victims of too many conflicts are the crucified people of our times, witnessing to the mysterious presence of God in times of darkness. They call us to be with them, to speak out and to take action. In an uncaring world where more than 50 million people are displaced, the JRS mission of accompaniment of refugees is needed more than ever. This is precisely why Fr. Arrupe founded JRS in 1980.

Pau Vidal, S.J. is Project Director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Maban and a graduate of IDHA 43.

*This article was first published by JRS on August 13, 2014.

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