Four years of war have deeply affected the women and children. A Comboni Sister tells of her journey at their side.
The newest nation on the planet has not yet found peace. After a clash in the capital Juba, in December 2013, between the followers of Rick Macker of the Nuer tribe and those of President Salva Kiir, brought the country to the brink of civil war, the conflict spread to other parts of the country. Various attempts were made to reconcile the different parties but, to date, despite the eight peace accords signed in the last four years, violence still rules in many parts of the country. Despite this situation, there are many missionaries who have decided to remain alongside the population and some of them are also present in the refugee camps in nearby Uganda.
Sr. Lorena Morales, 54 year-old, from Costa Rica works in Malakal, one of the regions most affected by the violence. “I have always worked in war zones. It is an experience that has left a deep mark on my missionary life. It means being reborn every time. It means living in precariousness. One never knows what may happen tomorrow. We are living through a war that, like all wars, is absurd. It means touching with our hands the effects of the violence on women and children”.
Sr. Lorena, with more than twenty years working in South Sudan, continues: “There are many cases of violence and sexual abuse both by the rebels and the military. Women are captured and taken away to be their wives. Some come back; others do not”.
“In recent months I have worked directly with groups of these women, – Sr. Lorena continues – we provide what we call ‘trauma therapy’ by which we try to create an atmosphere in which the women can tell their stories. They feel at ease and express themselves without fear and they know they are being cared for. They take part in projects that help them make progress and look after their families. I admire these women. They deserve respect. They are able to organise their lives in a war zone”.
The most striking aspect of all this is its instability. Attacks can take place at any moment and then the only thing to do is to flee. The first thing the women do is to send the children immediately to the forest, to the swamps and the small islands in the Nile. They themselves then move away, taking with them their food, the goats, chickens and whatever they can.
The women are kept informed by a system of communication known only to themselves and they are often able to get away in time. When the rebels or the military come they manage to hide. They know the paths through the swamps and the places where the UN distribute food. They also know it is very dangerous to go there as, to do so, they have to pass through areas controlled by the rebels or the military. But they have to risk everything to get food for their children and the elderly.
Sr. Lorena admires the strength and determination of the South Sudanese women and says: “The women play a key role in the very survival of individuals and the community itself”.
Sr Lorena often uses a canoe to visit groups of women and children hiding in the forests or lagoons. “Yes. I travel sometimes for days on end, by canoe or walking through the swamps or open areas. This involves real danger since there may be groups in the area who may attack us, steal all our food and carry us off”.
It is already evening and sitting under a mango tree Sr. Lorena speaks a little about herself: “I feel that my faith is like a pathway, a process, and I have gone through different processes. It is something that is growing. I realise now that I cannot tell if peace will come to South Sudan tomorrow or in 25 years’ time; this I do not know. But what I do know is that, being here means placing all my faith in life, in the dignity of the people, in love and reconciliation. We all have got to keep going. This is my faith as a woman and a missionary. I have to believe, to wait patiently and to work hard. I believe in this country and its people”.