The Bishops of Sudan and South Sudan visiting the great refugee camp of Bidi Bidi
During his ad limina visit last September, the Pope had explicitly asked the bishops of Sudan and South Sudan to pay special attention to the millions of refugees displaced either inside the Country or in neighboring countries. Francis, who follows the situation in South Sudan with particular interest, strongly urged the Episcopal Conference to make the Church come alive among the refugees, to make it a constant presence among them. Returning home, the bishops wanted to respond immediately to the papal invitation. They organized a visit to the refugee camp of Bid Bidi, the extreme north-west strip of Uganda, the largest settlement in the world: 282,000 displaced persons, the vast majority of whom were South Sudanese, housed in makeshift accommodation in an area of 230 square kilometers.
An exceptional event, which saw the participation of the entire Episcopal Conference of Sudan and South Sudan and which allowed the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy to share daily life in the camp for six days. Struck by the dramatic situation, the bishops, after having decided on a series of interventions, took the opportunity for a strong appeal to politics so that the peace agreement signed just a month ago would hold up and South Sudan return to peace that would allow millions of fugitives to return to their homes. Below Monsignor Hiiboro Kussala, bishop of the diocese of South Sudan of Tombura-Yambio, and president of the Episcopal Conference answers a few questions to Vatican Insider.
Your Excellency, how did the decision come about?
“As Episcopal Conference, we had never gone to visit the refugee camps where so many of our faithful reside. Before this visit, only I and the bishops of Malakal (South Sudan) and El Obeid (Sudan) had entered a refugee camp, but only for a short time. This time we all wanted to be there and take time to meet, speak, administer the sacraments, share with the people, our brothers and sisters who live a very hard stage of their existence. We stayed almost a week and we showed them all our closeness. The Pope’s invitation was a breakthrough, we could not ignore it, and we decided to take it up immediately: as soon as we returned from Rome in mid-September we organized and carried out the visit to Bidi Bidi”.
What humanity have you met?
“A suffering humanity. In the field, there are many things missing, there is a lack of food, people receive rations from international bodies but they are never enough. It feeds on cassava, corn, a little oil, but they are constantly experiencing great difficulties; then, the remain in the camp for years, the majority of refugees are there since 2014, a few months after the outbreak of the civil war. There is no possibility of economic activity, trade or work, thus people live on aid, and lead a life of precarious subsistence, which allows no space for imagining a better future. I wanted to give them a word of hope, I told them that that condition is not forever, that it is not the last word of their lives. But there is a lot of discouragement. Precisely for this reason we thought it necessary to make the Pope’s invitation alive and go and visit Bidi Bidi: it was like saying “The Church is with you, she suffers with you”. We were moved by the story of some women who have lost everything and have no news of their children, their husbands. Of men who look after their children without knowing what happened to their wives. Some are then afraid to return because they fear retaliation. During the visit, we have wiped many tears”.
How did they welcome the news of the peace agreement for South Sudan?
“I must tell you that they are not very confident. They have seen so many agreements fail after a short time and they fear it will be yet another mockery. Fortunately, this time the truce is holding up and the agreement seems more solid, but they don’t trust the parties that signed it, government and opposition, and I understand them. On the other hand, in the country, is warming with weapons, and signing peace is not enough. We must start immediately to think about reconstructing immediately, to provide psycho-social support to the many young people, women, men raised in and traumatized by war. In our country, many young people no longer behave as normal young people would, they have grown up in hatred and fear. There are many widows, many orphans. The Church has much to do in her mission to create reconciliation, forgiveness, trust”.
On 5 October last you launched a heartfelt appeal to all the parties for the agreement to be respected, for the truce to stand, for peace to finally be established in South Sudan, what answers did you receive?
“I am convinced that as Church we must never stop talking both to the government and to the opposition. We must be present in the political context and urge everyone to respect the agreement: so many things depend on it, the lives of refugees, the displaced, the economic suffering of an entire country. Here, life is very hard and we cannot miss this historic occasion. That is why the bishops and I constantly reiterate appeals to everyone. We send them to the newspapers, to political parties, to civil society and we are comforted to see that peace holds, the ceasefire has not been substantially violated. But it is time to make every effort possible to save this agreement. We call on the international community, the EU, the UN to make themselves neutral guarantors and not leave responsibility up to Uganda and Sudan alone (the agreement was signed under the patronage of the two neighboring states, but given the interests that the two countries have in the area, it would be risky to make them remain the sole guarantors, ed). The fact that our appeals have generally been appreciated by all and that no one has perceived them as contrary or hostile, really gives me hope for the future”.
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