Irish missionaries offer hope in ‘wasteland’ of South Sudan

Fr John Skinnader with local children in South Sudan.

The picture above of children foraging for food among waste best sums up the situation in South Sudan, says Fr John Skinnader CSSp, a Spiritan priest from Co. Monaghan who has been based in the country since 2012.

“The three tall buildings, just visible at the back, are the only ones standing after the fighting and bombing of July 2016. People are left with a devastated wasteland but are grimly determined to continue on with their lives as best they can,” he tells The Irish Catholic. 

“From the highs of independence in 2011, the South Sudanese people have been left with a ‘failed state’ and the promise of more violence to come.” 

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011 as the result of a 2005 agreement that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. An overwhelming majority of the South Sudanese population had voted to secede in a referendum earlier that year. The young state then plunged into crisis in December 2013 amid a power struggle between the president and his deputy, whom he had sacked. President Kiir signed a peace deal with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar in 2015. However, violence broke out again between government forces and opposition factions in July 2016, and South Sudan has now become the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, with more than 1.8 million refugees having sought safety in neighbouring countries.

Fr John is working in two of the UN camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which hold more than 30,000 people who fled the ethnic killings when the conflict started in 2013. 

“The main conflict is between the two largest ethnic groups: the Dinka and the Nuer. However, smaller ethnic groups are now being pulled into the conflict as they are defending themselves from the ‘ethnic-cleansing’ that is going on in many parts of the country,” he says. 

“In this situation people tend to turn to their churches for help and protection, and as the Catholic Church continues to be one of the few institutions still functioning quite well in the country, we have an important role to play in bringing hope and material help to the people.” 

Fr John says despite the many obstacles faced in getting church services organised, Masses were held throughout the camps on Easter Sunday and “people really appreciate the presence of the Church as a sign that the Risen Lord is with them”.


Sr Margaret Sheehan, a member of the Society of the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus from Co. Limerick, is working in Yambio with Solidarity with South Sudan, a consortium of more than 200 religious congregations training teachers, nurses and pastoral workers in South Sudan. 

“We are in a terrible situation nationwide in South Sudan,” Sr Margaret says. “Yambio is not suffering as much as other places because people somehow manage to plant but the people live with the possibility of an attack at any one time.”

The house where Sr Margaret and her teaching colleagues are based was attacked in December 2015, but she says she will not leave the country “unless they shoot us out of the place”.

“We were attacked by a small group of rebels where they took cars and phones and computers. Two of our members left after this experience so as well as what they took from us, we lost two very good teachers,” she says.

Food has become an urgent issue in South Sudan as inflation rises at an incredible rate, making food too expensive for most people and creating famine conditions.

“Many shops in Yambio town are closed as it is difficult to get food into our state because of insecurity along the roads,” Sr Margaret says. “Also the dollar has soared, for example, when I came out to South Sudan in 2008 it was 3.2 South Sudanese Pounds to the dollar. Yesterday it was 145ssp to the dollar. Many workers are also not getting paid as most of the funds go to buying arms. There is famine in many parts of the country but we continue to buy arms.”

“Hunger is a big issue for the people as inflation is rampant,” says Fr John, who is the co-ordinator of the Spiritan group in South Sudan. He says the Spiritans and a number of other religious congregations have feeding programmes in schools and parishes.

“We have two parishes in the Diocese of Rumbek: Wulu in the North run by a Kenyan and a Tanzanian Spiritan; and Tun Aduel which is run by another of our Kenyan priests,” Fr John says.

“Thanks to the support of Misean Cara and Love of Neighbour Worldwide/NLW, a German-registered missionary-supporting NGO, as well as family and friends, we have been able to help thousands of our parishioners to have at least one meal every other day. 

“We also support those organisations that have permission to go to the famine areas which are controlled by the government.”


Sr Margaret says she and her colleagues continue to try and train primary school teachers in Yambio. One of the difficulties they face is that the students are trapped at the school 365 days of the year because it is not safe for them to travel home at the end of the school term. 

“We cannot send them home at the end of the year as every student has to fly now because there is hardly any road transport, so we do not have funds for them to have any break,” she explains. 

“They come and stay here until they graduate. Having no time between one semester is hard on the body and the soul but we accept it because it is what we have to do. We continue every day to pray for peace,” she says.

Fr John says, in a time of war and famine, missionaries “try to be a presence to the people”. 

“A sign that the outside world has not forgotten them and that God continues to look after them through the NGOs and Church personnel who bring food, water, medical care to them.”