The retired bishop from South Sudan, has lived through decades of war in his native country, but he holds hope like a candle in the darkness, its light bringing hope to others.
“I am, optimistic,” Taban said. He has shepherded his flock through two civil wars and perpetual civil and political conflict. “I have to be a shepherd up to the end,” he said. “Unlike many of my people, I was never a refugee, but I always say that I am a refugee from heaven. So, I will only leave my people when I must return to my home in heaven.”
Internationally known for his efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to Sudan, in 2013, Taban won the United Nations’ Sergio Vieira de Mello prize in honor of his work to promote peace in South Sudan. The award recognizes individuals or groups that have made a unique contribution to conflict resolution. Taban’s signature contribution to peace is unique, indeed.
In 2004, Taban formed Holy Trinity Peace Village, an ambitious project near the borders of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. His goal was to establish a “safe zone for diversity, a place where people from any tribe or religion could come together to share daily life. This hands-on experience of community is a bone-deep lesson in learning to live in peace.
Taban’s inspiration comes from his roots in Katire. While many doubted that his experiment would work, he had faith. He had seen it in action. “My parents and others didn’t know anything about tribalism—not even on religious issues,” he said. “We lived all together, and we loved each other…. So, I wanted to found another village like this.” The mechanical aptitude that surfaced in seminary proved useful once again years later. He founded the South Sudan peace village in a remote area and attempted to bring the locals together. “I knew we needed to start with a school, but there was no school. There was not even a road.” But in the shifting political landscape where many saw danger, Taban saw opportunity. ” The rebels had seized a bulldozer—I knew this would be useful. They did not know how to fix it, but I did. That was a beginning. I could fix it and they would let me use it for a while.” Taban became a trailblazer in the truest sense.
“We brought people together. People who had only met as enemies now had to work together to build the village, to provide food, to care for the children,” he said. “Now, they do not say, he is from this tribe’ or, that person is not like me.’ They are neighbours, friends.”
Even amid the current conflict, “This is one of the safest areas in South Sudan. It is a safe haven,” Taban affirmed. “Peace is rooted in communities, not in agreements or rules. You do not fight against someone you know, your neighbour.”
At the village, people are creating a peace academy, where they bring people from all over South Sudan, leaders and pastors, to learn the sense of being peaceful and carry that feeling and message to their homes.
It is Taban’s approach to those who are often cast as the villains in global conflict that most distinguishes him. He surprises people when he tells them, “The perpetrator has more problems than the victim…. People do not just become soldiers or warlords or rebels for no reason. They are traumatized. If you spend time with them, you can feel how deeply wounded they are. You can inhale their trauma.”
Taban said that one day, somebody told him that a local military commander wanted to kill him.
“I just put some fuel in my truck…and drive two days through Uganda and arrive at the home of the commander very early in the morning,” he said. He finds the commander’s wife in the yard, while their children play, and Taban asks for the commander.
Instead of being greeted with violence, he was met with a hug and hospitality.
“The commander comes [saying], ‘Oh Bishop, how are you?’ He hugged me,” he said. They had tea and breakfast. People asked why he took the risk of going to that area, when he heard the commander wanted him dead. They were shocked to hear his story of breakfast. “You can disarm a person by love, not by gun, not by violence. Love is the best way of disarming a human being,” he said.