SOUTH SUDAN — Rev. Martin Francis Vuni Asida and Helen Smith-McIntyre of the local Amnesty International group during a presentation about the situation in South Sudan.

Four million at risk in South Sudan: Asida

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski

SASKATOON — Returning to South Sudan for a visit this summer, Rev. Martin Francis Vuni Asida saw first-hand the worsening situation in the young country, as civil war and famine threaten the lives of innocent civilians.

The Catholic priest shared his insights about South Sudan at a recent Amnesty International meeting in Saskatoon, held at Augustana Lutheran Church. The Sept. 15 gathering included Asida as guest speaker, before the local Amnesty International group held its AGM.

Asida is currently serving in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon as pastor of parishes at Delisle, Vanscoy and Asquith. Originally from the village of Pageri in South Sudan, for several years Asida was the contact person in Africa for the Saskatoon grassroots non-profit organization Friends of Loa, which worked to raise funds to build and repair schools in the area. He has been living and working in the Diocese of Saskatoon since October 2013.

A conflict between government troops and those who support the country’s former vice-president broke out in December 2013. Since the violence began, it is estimated that some 1.3 million have been displaced, and tens of thousands have been killed. During a return visit to South Sudan in July, Asida was dismayed by what he saw and heard.

“Close to four million people are at risk of starvation,” he told the gathering.

One South Sudanese bishop has been quoted as saying, “In all my life I never saw mass graves in South Sudan: until this conflict began.” The area is no stranger to war — with decades of civil war before the country achieved its independence from Sudan in July 2011 — but the bishop’s words indicate the severity and “new tone” of this most recent conflict, Asida said. He noted in another statement, the country’s bishops described this conflict as “one of the gravest situations we have ever faced.”

International agencies issuing reports about the situation in South Sudan are describing atrocities by both sides against civilians, he said.

One such report is Nowhere Safe published by Amnesty International in April. Human Rights Watch has stated that the crimes against civilians over the past months, including ethnic killings, will “resonate for decades.”

The conflict has come to be divided along ethnic lines between the Nuer and Dinka tribes — and both sides are targeting civilians as a military strategy, said Asida.

A narrow focus on ending the conflict is not going to bring a long-lasting solution to the situation in South Sudan, he said, stressing the need for accountability and a need to heal the deep wounds caused by the violence. Without real consequences and true reconciliation, peace will not last, he said, asserting that simply restoring the status quo is no solution.

Corruption is a factor in the conflict, with some $10.8 billion disappearing from the country’s coffers — something that “no one can explain,” Asida said.

He quoted former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who said shortly after South Sudan achieved its independence in 2011: “We know that oil will either help your country finance its own path out of poverty or you will fall prey to the natural resource curse, which will enrich a small elite, outside interests, corporations and countries, and leave your people hardly better off.”

Asida noted, “The country has descended very rapidly into corruption.”

The conflict is also being fuelled by the involvement of other nations, including Uganda, Egypt and most recently, China, which wants to protect its oil supply from South Sudan, he said.

Political will to stop the conflict and to find new paths for the young country are urgently needed, he said, reporting a recent call from a friend back home, in which he said the country is “fast developing into a situation where you have to kill in order not to be killed.”

The United Nations has a presence in the country, but is unable to protect civilians from the violence, Asida said. “Their capacity to defend is questionable.”

He noted that some 80 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, remote from larger centres where the UN and other aid organizations are operating. Transport is particularly difficult during the rainy season: for instance, about 90 per cent of Jongolei (one of the new country’s 10 states) is not accessible. “What’s happening out there is totally outside of people’s purview.”

Asked what Canadians can do to help, Asida called for those concerned about the deteriorating situation to lobby Canadian government representatives, asking them to show interest in South Sudan and work to stop the war, as well as to increase the United Nations personnel in the country and boost other efforts to protect the civilian population.

A lack of media attention — and a government crack down on South Sudanese journalists and media outlets — means that there is not a lot of worldwide awareness about the situation faced by the young country, he added in response to questions.

Asida concluded by saying that he supports the call of the Catholic bishops of South Sudan to “re-found our nation on a new covenant.”

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