A country in search of peace. A secondary school in Juba is trying to provide concrete answers.
A city that formed on the left bank of the White Nile, about a hundred kilometres from the Ugandan border, Juba has been, since the eighteen hundreds, the principal city in the South of Sudan, a vast region of 619,745 square km. With a population of around 500,000, Juba remained under the control of the central government of Khartoum and its army during the civil war that lasted twenty one years. As a result, it was virtually isolated from the rest of the region and besieged for most of the time by the rebels.
With the peace agreement in 2005, the city began its renewal, creating administrative structures, a regional government with all the main ministries, legislative assemblies and governments for the twelve states that comprised the region as well as local administrations at the provincial (county) and municipal (payam) levels. The city had its moment of glory on 9 July, 2011 when, before presidents and heads of state from various parts of the world, South Sudan officially became the 54th African state and the 193rd state in the world and Juba the newest capital in the world. It was a moment of enthusiasm, joy and hope that would not last long however.
In December 2013, some Dinka militias loyal to President Salva Kiir began to clash with Nuer army soldiers, accusing them of planning a coup. The Nuer soldiers were led by Vice President Riek Machar who had been dismissed by Kiir a few days previously. The city became a battleground. Thousands of people took refuge in United Nations areas. Dead bodies lay in the streets. Despite talks and various negotiations, peace has not yet been restored.
The city continues to be a discouraging example of ethnic violence and fear. The amount of damage caused by the conflict cannot be known exactly but it is estimated that, since 2013, there have been thousands of deaths and 2.3 million displaced people. The people flee towards bordering countries (such as Uganda) or seek shelter in the UN refugee camps within the country.
Not far from the places where, in December four years ago, the clashes took place between the various factions, the Daniel Comboni Juba Secondary School stands. Sr. Lily Grace Akuma, a Ugandan Comboni Sister, has been teaching English and religion there since 2014. She said: “the Comboni Secondary School Juba (CSSJ) is a school, set up in the eighties by the Comboni family to provide educational opportunities for the young population of what was then Southern Sudan, where secondary schools could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It was meant to be a response to the lack of education in the region, especially for girls.
It is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious school that tries to promote peaceful co-existence. This year there are 470 students from eighteen different ethnic groups; half of them are girls. There are thirty three teachers of whom only two are women”.
The secondary school is much appreciated in Juba for its educational standards and the formation it gives. Many parents favour the education of their daughters since they believe that they, in their turn, will contribute in a qualified way to the development of the country.
Among the extracurricular activities there are various clubs: that of the girl students, guided by Sr. Lily, has 235 members who study such themes as self-knowledge, gender violence and reproductive health. There are also theatre, journalism, environmental and debating clubs. All students are involved in debates including those between schools.
Sister Lily recalls: “Unfortunately, towards the end of 2013 the civil war brought the population to its knees. The traumas inflicted by the civil war have wounded the boys and girls who attend the school and the constant lack of security has upset the educational programme of the country”.
“I teach English and religion – the Comboni Sister continues – and coordinate admissions and the disciplinary committee. The religion course aims at connecting Christian values to daily life. It helps to look beyond one’s own individual needs and to take care of other people. This spiritual formation has produced a commendable assistance initiative after the clashes in July”.
Sr. Akuna recalls a particular event that took place just a year ago and left its mark on the progress of the school: “It was 8 July 2016. The city was disturbed by the deafening noise of the shells and rockets. At the Presidential Palace the soldiers of President Salva Kiir clashed with those of his rival, Riek Machar. More than three hundred people were killed. It was indeed a sad statistic on the vigil of the fifth anniversary of independence on 9 July”.
Following the conflict, almost all foreign personnel left the country and many South Sudanese sought refuge in bordering countries, at the UN bases and in the churches. There was widespread fear and suspicion as the economy fell apart.
“On 16 August – Sr. Akuna continued – we again heard the sound of shooting and the city was filled with fear. The boys and girls of the school decided to risk their lives to reach Juba orphanage where one hundred and twenty three minors who had lost their parents in the civil war were living. The youngest was six years old. The wanted to let them see they were close to those children who had suffered the violence of war”.
“It was their decision – Sr. Akuna stated – and it was a surprise for me to see so many boys and girls of different ethnic groups working together to give support to so many orphaned children. I believe it was a lesson for the ‘adults’ who, by their greed for power destroy the country. Not only did they go to see the children, bringing them food and clothes but they also cleaned up the area and cut the grass on the lawn. Yes! Education can do this: eradicate resentment and hatred and create moments of encounter and solidarity”. Sr. Akima then concluded: “I am sure that quality education will succeed in gradually transforming South Sudan. This new generation, by means of a school that educates for responsibility, can humanise a country and bring peace…true peace”.