South Sudan

For the Murle people in the South Sudan, life is lived in moments, some horrific. Poorly trained government soldiers have committed gross human rights violations in Jonglei State robbing  businesses, burning homes and churches to the ground, and ruthlessly killing people who cannot escape.

Presbyterian World Mission, Presbyterian Women and other leaders from the church recently traveled to South Sudan to visit people there and stand in solidarity with our mission partner, RECONCILE. RECONCILE contributes to nation building by facilitating processes for equipping communities in South Sudan and the region with knowledge and skills for sustainable peace through trauma healing, accountable governance and social transformation.

Presbyterian leaders visited with ministers and their congregations during their visit in mid-November. “Even during the 21 years of civil war, the Murle have not died like they die today,” said Rev. C.M. He showed a photo, a house burned to the ground, the charred remains of an elderly man, inside, killed in his own home. His voice almost broke as he described the horror that unfolded. “This man was too weak,” Rev. C.M. said. “He tried to crawl out of the house. But they pushed him back inside. He was burned alive. Why do they do this?”

Editor’s Note: Joel DeJong accompanied a group from Presbyterian World Mission in a visit to South Sudan in November. We asked him to write about the trip and life in South Sudan. Since this story was completed, violence has escalated there.

PC(USA) mission co-workers were recently evacuated. To read more about the current conflict there, see our South Sudan page on our web site. We will continue to update that page with the most recent information.

The town of Pibor, in Jonglei Province, was the center of Murle life. But it is now a ghost town. The Murle people have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda. They are hiding in the bush, trying to escape the massacres. Some have found shelter in a United Nations compound. Others are in Juba, the capitol city. These are the ones who have survived.

Churches are burned to the ground, schools are destroyed, and aid centers are looted. Soldiers went into the village shopping center and confiscated all the goods. They took all the food, everything in the store, and brought it to the army barracks. The soldiers lived off the loot from the town they destroyed.

“It was the national army that did this,” the pastor explained. “They even wrote their name, SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), on the walls of the buildings they destroyed. This way we know we are not safe. When they burned the church, the pastor tried to run away. But he was old, and could not run fast enough. They killed him, too.”

This happened in January 2013. After the peace agreements were signed, after South Sudan gained its independence, after the celebrations of liberty. The South Sudanese government has turned a blind eye as its own army destroys the homeland of the Murle people.

In the room with this pastor there are pastors of other ethnic groups. He looks at his colleagues and speaks to hope: “It is our prayer that the rest of the community members will follow suit and live together as we do in the church.” It is no small accomplishment to come together as Dinka, Nuer, and Murle pastors. The violence, animosity, pure hatred between these groups has been lived out in massacre after massacre. But these pastors are standing together, speaking their truth, and yearning for peace. They believe that it can only come from the church, from Christians who refuse to give into violence, retribution, and division.

Rev. C.M. continues, “It used to be war without hurting women and children; today, human beings are targets. Women and children are first to be eliminated. Women are the source of wealth and pride. They rape the women because it destroys the husband and father.”

The pastors are working to bring peace, offering counseling to those traumatized by the violence. Caring for the orphans, the widows, the survivors. As children pretend to shoot one another, imitating the army, imitating the violence they have endured, the pastors seek to bring the gospel of peace, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But there is deep despair, Rev. C.M. says. “We cannot build roads, cannot build anything, cannot plant, because of all the violence. There is enough. We have water, animals, land. But we cannot use it. Our cultures are dividers, not connectors in the communities. I see one who is different and I see him as my enemy. There are markings in the skin, in the mouth, dividing us. We cannot mix with other cultures.” He sighs. “The Bible cannot be given a chance to destroy this, because we destroy our churches. The Bible cannot bring peace, because the pastors are in prison.”

The despair is all too evident. And yet, we worship the God of Easter. We worship the God who did not give up on Good Friday, but loudly proclaimed that life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hatred, hope is stronger than despair. We worship the God who faced violence and torture, but rose from the grave to give new life, new joy, new hope to all of us. And there is hope in the midst of all this pain.

RECONCILE, one of the partners of PC(USA), is one example. In a situation where interethnic violence continues despite the peace treaties, RECONCILE seeks to bring peace through education and empowerment. Mr. J.G. shares about his experiences of finding forgiveness and moving forward through the work of RECONCILE.

In the past, he spoke out against corruption in the government; he was arrested and tortured. His hands were bound together, and then bound to his feet. He was left like that for days. Once he started coughing up blood, his captors were afraid he would die, and he was released. But instead of choosing retribution, instead of insisting on revenge, he came to RECONCILE. He learned about peace, justice, mercy, and truth. He worked with leaders from different tribes for healing and hope.

Mr. J.G. is now being called upon by different tribal leaders to help bring peace into communities throughout South Sudan. In fact, the former king called upon him to come and teach reconciliation. By resisting the cycle of revenge and retaliation, he is able to bring hope and peace to his people.

There are many reasons to have hope. The church is not giving up. The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan believes that through education, reconciliation, and faith, peace can come to their land. Relief programs, educational opportunities, midwifery schools, women’s programs and youth organizations within the church are building, working, and worshipping. Peace will come, for we serve a God of miracles.

RECONCILE is just one partner, training leaders and bringing hope to the people of South Sudan. These leaders serve the God of new life, new joy, and resurrection. As we join with them in prayer, in faith, in love, we witness to the transformative power of Jesus Christ. And together, we can transform the swords into plowshares, the spears into pruning hooks, and the people shall not learn war anymore. May it be so.