Irish missionaries working in war-torn South Sudan have vowed to stay with the people struggling with starvation and bloodshed, despite knowing they are in danger of being attacked at any moment.
South Sudan has become the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian emergency with warnings that many people are dying from hunger and disease. More than 1.8 million people – including one million children – have fled violence after a fragile peace collapsed last year.
Limerick native Sr Margaret Sheehan FCJ told The Irish Catholic “we are in a terrible situation”.
She said people live “with the possibility of an attack at any one time” but vowed that the missionaries will not leave the country “unless they shoot us out of the place”.
Speaking from her base in Yambio, in the southwest of the country close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sr Margaret revealed that the sisters’ house had already been attacked by what she described as “a small group of rebels”.
Up to 300,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the bitter war between rival politicians.
Sr Margaret warned that famine has now become the most urgent problem in the country with many shops unable to access food supplies “because of insecurity along the roads”, inflation is rampant and many workers are not getting paid “as most of the funds go to buying arms”.
Sr Margaret – a Faithful Companion of Jesus sister – works with the charity Solidarity with South Sudan, a consortium of 200 religious congregations.
Fr John Skinnader CSSp, a priest from Co. Monaghan working in two of the UN refugee camps in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, has said that many people have nowhere to turn but the Church.
“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,” the Spiritan missionary said.
He also said that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is going on in many parts of the country. The conflict, Fr John told The Irish Catholic, has left people “with a devastated wasteland”. However, the missionary said they are “grimly determined to continue on with their lives as best they can”.
South Sudan became independent from Sudan in July 2011, after Africa’s longest-running civil war ended. However, violence erupted in 2013 when President Salva Kiir Mayardit sacked his vice-president Riek Machar, who has now become a rebel leader.
A peace deal in 2015 was violently shattered in July 2016, causing the current crisis.