Monday, March 17, 2014
The cease-fire from January 23rd in South Sudan apparently exists only on paper. Conflicts arise again and again between the followers of President Salva Kiir and of the former Vice President Riek Machar. The Comboni Missionary Father Gregor Schmidt – originally from Berlin – has lived in South Sudan since March 2009. In an interview with the German website “Internetportal Weltkirche” of the Catholic Church he talks about the situation there and explains what role the various ethnic groups have in the conflict. By Lena Kretschmann.


Fr. Gregor Bog-Dong Schmidt,
a German Comboni missionary
in Old Fangak.
He sat on boat with refugees.
The crowd covered every part
of the boat.

Because of the continuing conflict in South Sudan, many NGOs have discontinued their work, and the UN has flown out most of its civil personnel. Why are people from religious orders, like the Comboni Missionaries, still in South Sudan?

Gregor Schmidt: In my religious community it is clear to us that our presence in South Sudan is more important than ever before. The Gospel bears witness to the light of Jesus that shines in the darkness. Where people accept this light, hate is transformed into love, and desperation into assurance. The Rule of Life of my order states: “Following Christ, the missionary becomes one with the people in their life, work and journey, sharing their lot.” If this fate is a civil war, it is also my fate. I accept this consciously and live it, trusting in God.

Your parish is in Jonglei State, in rebel territory among the Nuer. What is the current situation there?

Only two of eleven parishes in our diocese have not been affected by the fighting. One of them is our parish. This is because the area is difficult to reach. There are no roads that lead in our County. And along the river, it is too risky for the army to plan an attack because the rebels control large areas of the riverbanks.

Our town of Old Fangak (see the map) is living in a tense atmosphere between war and peace. At least the rebels don’t plunder here as they do elsewhere. However, the stock of food on the market is running low. For example, there is no more flour, so the baker can’t sell bread anymore. According to the UN, around a third of the population in South Sudan has difficulty getting enough to eat. That’s around 4 million people.

Almost every day refugees arrive here who have fled from the army. They report that the government troops don’t come as liberators. Rather they attack villages and even kill civilians.

If people are fleeing from the fighting, that means that the cease fire from January 23rd is not being kept.

We hear from refugees from Upper Nile and Unity, that not a single day has passed since the cease fire, when the national army has not pressed forward into Nuer territory. President Salva Kiir has a stronger position because of the support of the Ugandan army, rebel groups from Sudan/Dafur and allegedly also M23-Rebels from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He seizes the opportunity to create facts on the ground.

The parish in Leer (Unity State) is under the pastoral care of us Comboni Missionaries. It lies around 100 km south of Bentiu, the State capital. Bentiu was captured by the army before the signing of the cease fire. The agreement foresaw that all troops should remain at their location and don’t move. The army not only didn’t abide by the agreement but also sent ahead mercenary rebels from Dafur (the JEM) that are looting, burning villages and kill civilians. On the 1st of February the army finally entered Leer. Our priests and sisters fled into the bush.

The national army and the SPLM-North (yet another rebel group from Sudan) are slowly moving southwards in Upper Nile State and have by now reached the border of the Jonglei State. It will hold a few more weeks, but without a functioning cease fire, Old Fangak may be also in danger.

The bad thing is that the population is being plundered twice. First come “our” rebels, who are hungry and who don’t want to leave anything behind for their enemies. They steal food, chickens and fuel. When the army with the mercenaries arrive, they then take the rest. And even though the Nuer rebels don’t act any better, the responsibility is on the government, because if the army hadn’t pressed onward, the tragedy and chaos we now have wouldn’t exist.

I have also mentioned the M23 rebels. There are several websites that report of their activities. After the Congolese army, together with UN peace keepers, has defeated them in November 2013, they are so to speak “jobless”. Therefore, the Ugandan president Museveni has hired them to fight in South Sudan on the government side. But this information still needs to be confirmed by independent observers. It would reveal how much regional interests from Kampala to Khartoum influence this conflict. Uganda is the regional power, and its solders won’t leave South Sudan for months or even years in order to protect its interests.

I don’t want to absolve Riek Machar’s rebels from any atrocities. President Kiir has blamed them for breaking the cease fire, too. But because the refugees who come to Old Fangak are fleeing from the national army, I have reported in detail their testimonies.


"In my religious community
it is clear to us that our presence
in South Sudan is more important
than ever before."
Fr. Gregor Schmidt
with his confreres.

According to the UNHCR, there are more than 740,000 people on the run inside the country; more than 120,000 people have gone to neighbouring countries. Where do these people find a place to stay? What kind of protection does the church offer?

Only around 80.000 people have found refuge in the UN camps. I presume that most of the others flee to places where they think that there will be no fighting, and to where they have family. All of the refugees in Old Fangak live with relatives. There is no extra camp for them here. The church is not able to offer protection in the face of the fighting. Even UN peace keepers sometimes have a hard time protecting refugees from the army or rebels. In Malakal, the bishop’s seat of our diocese, 6,500 people fled inside the cathedral. The benches are intended for a capacity of 800 people. Fortunately, the building was not attacked.

In Leer, there was a Dinka trader who asked for protection from the commissioner. Because the local administration felt powerless to grant his safety, they sent him to the parish of the Comboni Missionaries. But the people ready to kill him would not have stopped in front of the church plot. So he was taken away to find his way alone into Dinka territory. That example illustrates that the church cannot offer protection when people are enraged. The Nuer commissioner, who intended to save the life to the poor Dinka, was dismissed because of collaboration with the enemy.

What is the role of the various ethnic groups in the conflict?

In the media one often hears that the conflict stems primarily from power struggles between a few politicians, and not from an ethnic struggle. On the one hand, this is true, because the escalation of events was caused by decisions made by President Kiir and the former Vice President Machar. On the other hand, these individuals are fully rooted in their ethnic groups. Individual actions arise not just from desires for power; they follow an “ethnic” logic.

The Nuer in our County all support Riek Machar, because he is a Nuer. Through him they hope to participate in the power of the state and have access to the profits from the oil reserves. They want Machar to be elected President in 2015. Of course this has become an illusory goal because of the havoc and atrocities his rebels have committed.

For almost all people in South Sudan, the ethnic affiliation is more important than the national identity. One’s family and ethnic group traditionally ensure security and just distribution. It is a relational network which is difficult to leave, even if one wishes to. The pressure of the relatives is extremely intense. When someone earns money, there are many relatives asking for a share. How could a politician who manages state funds react in this context? When it comes down to it, the politician would rather betray the State than betray his clan. That which is generally characterized as corruption and nepotism, is the way through which the various ethnic groups ensure that their members are taken care of. The preference for one’s own group and the resulting conflicts – that has always been around. This pattern of behaviour continues to be exhibited when one becomes a politician.

The modern state is an abstract concept that has little relevance in the lives of people, particularly in the countryside. If they note the presence of the state, it is often because of problems that occur because the state interferes in issues that are considered tribal affairs. For example, there is a traditional and a national penal code. Traditionally among pastoralist people, the punishment of an offence consists in a number of cattle to be paid because they don’t maintain prisons. According to modern laws, offenders can be incarcerated and even may be punished for acts that are not considered offenses under traditional law. This is an obstacle to welcome the existence of the state.

After the joy at the independence in 2011, people have realized quickly that their lives haven’t improved significantly. Furthermore, conflicts between ethnic groups have not been solved. Those conflicts arise mainly because of cattle raiding and a shortage of grazing land.

In your circular letter of January you write concerning inter-ethnic conflicts: “Moral rules apply mainly within one’s own group. A cattle raid is dangerous, but it is not morally despicable to raid and to kill people of other ethnic groups in such a situation.” In the light of this behaviour, how is it possible that a multi-ethnic state exists peacefully without giving up one’s tradition and identity?

Cattle raiding is going on for thousands of years. But pastoralist peoples have to ask themselves if they would give up their identity if they were to give up this tradition. I say, they wouldn’t. And probably, also Nuer and Dinka who have live abroad wouldn’t think so. Change of cultures happens everywhere.

And it is not so that one holds on to cattle raiding because it is part of his culture. The necessities of the marriage system push people to raid. Without paying dowry, men can’t marry, and nobody would give away his daughter for free. Even women insist on the dowry because it is a sign of appreciation. A woman who has been married away with a low dowry is ashamed.

I have met a Ugandan who still had to marry his wife by paying bride wealth. But his daughter was allowed to marry without it. It was more important to him that his son-in-law has a good education and that the two love each other. I expect that also in South Sudan such a change of culture will happen. But it will take decades, and it won’t happen homogenously.


Around 70% of South Sudanese belong to a church. How far does the common faith unite ethnic groups and can be a factor to solve conflicts?

Personally, I am disappointed that the non-violent aspect of the Christian faith isn’t rooted deeply. Most Dinka are Christians, many Nuer are.

During the time of civil war against the Arab government in Khartoum, the ecumenical Council of Churches has done excellent work and promoted unity among South Sudanese ethnicities.

But the violent resistance was not questioned, because without it, there would have never been a referendum on independence. In the current conflict both sides defend themselves and their actions with the same argument.

There is a great interest in Jesus Christ and his Gospel in South Sudan, but it is filtered through one’s perception like in all cultures. Christians accept easily those things of the faith which make sense to them. But if the Gospel contradicts one’s culture, it is integrated only with difficulty. That happens also in Europe: Christian values that contradict the secular life-style are rather ignored or even rejected. Since the ethnic affiliation affects so fundamentally the lives of people in South Sudan, the message of the universal family of God is a foreign concept; the same applies to the idea of universally shared human rights. That is what I meant by stating that moral rules apply mainly within an ethnic group.

I am convinced that the Gospel will change the perspective of people in the long run. In towns, people from different ethnicities come together; they pray in the same church, they make friends. Instead, in the countryside peoples settle in different territories. They seldom encounter each other, or if they do, it often happens as a consequence of a raid. That influences what people think of their neighbours.

I answer your question cautiously with a positive outlook. But if we talk about the national unity, we must keep in mind that there are also followers of the traditional African religion and of Islam. Unity among Christians should not result in the exclusion of other citizens. What I abhor totally is to replace the ethnic identity with a puffed-up nationalism that wants to divert attention from the fact that, so far, there is no meaningful contribution of the state for the well-being of its citizens.


of Juba,
Paulino Lukudu Loro.

The bishops in South Sudan met late January to talk about the tense situation in Juba. They are pushing for an “urgent democratic reform”. What should such a reform look like?

When we hear the word „democratic“, we associate it with a social system in which citizens act as individuals and take informed decisions. In South Sudan most people have a collective world view. The clan and traditions are defining instances, not the individual, personal opinion. An institutional political reform won’t amount to much when politicians and voters are encased in their ethnic groups.

During the elections in 2010 I was working among another pastoralist people, the Mundari. There, the elders decided for all the registered voters what they had to vote for. Because in that region 98% of the people are illiterate, an assistant was in the ballot box to mark the ballots for each voter. Later, the elections were recognized by the international community as valid and representing the will of the people.

A functional democracy needs the idea of the individual as political subject as well as a certain level of education. Otherwise it’s all a farce, since a political decision-making process cannot take place. In South Sudan only one in five people can read. Women have even less access to education. It is three times more likely that a teenage girl will get pregnant and die due to complications during child birth than that she finishes school. Regardless of any political reform, the perspective of women won’t be present in politics for years to come.

Instead of using Western democracies as standard, I believe that, at the moment, it is better to make sure that the ethnic groups are represented fairly at all levels of decision making which affect them directly. That is not an easy task in South Sudan with around 200 ethnicities. Furthermore, wherever reasonable, funds shouldn’t be administered by the central government but locally, where there is an interest to invest.

All of that fortifies the ethnic order for the time being. But this type of thinking or acting can’t be overcome by denying it. Instead, the problems that go along with it should be addressed openly. No one should be made to feel ashamed of his ethnicity and that his actions are influenced by it. Anything else would be hypocrisy. When the state reliably fulfils the basic needs of its citizens in the future, and when cultural attitudes have changed through access to general education, the importance of one’s ethnic background will lessen on its own. And men will accept that women claim their place in public life. But they will have to fight for it – just as women have done in Kenya and Uganda. No reform can get rid of patriarchal thinking.


What is your prognosis for the future of South Sudan? Will there be a peaceful solution soon?

I hesitate to make a prognosis; I am a bit pessimistic. It is of course possible that a compromise can be reached between President Kiir and the rebel leader Machar, and we would return to the situation we had before the civil war. But this wouldn’t be a solution or true peace, even if life somehow is “peaceful”.

If the international community is satisfied with things just staying quiet, it doesn’t do anything to help the people here – and sooner or later the situation will explode again. Since I can’t see how the opposing interests of the two parties can be mediated, I don’t expect anything good for this country in the near future. It seems to me that the international community is first of all interested in stable government institutions, regardless how this is implemented internally.

The Ugandan army couldn’t have run its massive air and ground campaign against the rebels without the tacit consent of the international community. In this situation, the Nuer are the pawn sacrifice, and the slaughter of hundreds of Nuer civilians by security guards of the president in the first week of the clashes in Juba is made forgotten. But only because of these murders, the revolt of soldiers has turned into an open ethnic conflict that involves a large part of the population. President Kiir would like to be re-elected to a second term in 2015. So far, he has the power to make that happen. It would mean, though, that a national reconciliation process is impossible. Only a president from a non-involved ethnic minority could mediate credibly.

Regarding the Christian work, I hope that it bears fruit eventually. But this is not something one can implement in a set timeframe – like project goals. The church breathes in the rhythm of generations. That’s why I believe that it will take quite a bit of time until the values of the Gospel become rooted in the society, and the community of faith creates a stronger identity than one’s ethnic group.

Unfortunately, the media have short attention spans. What really moves the peace process forward in society is the daily work of civil and church groups that perform non-violently the work of reconciliation.

By Lena Kretschmann,
Translation in English by L. Kuhn