After a euphoric reception in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Pope in South Sudan now wants more efforts to end the violence in the country. Despite a fragile peace agreement spanning several years, attacks and fatal incidents continue to occur in the East African country. At least 20 people were killed in clashes in the south on Thursday. More than two million of the eleven million South Sudanese have fled the violence.
Similar to Congo, the people of South Sudan have great hopes for the visit of the head of the church. "I wish this visit to be a turning point for peace and harmony," said James Oyet Latansio, secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches. Thousands of people came to the capital Juba from all parts of the country to see the Pope. Coming from Kinshasa, he landed on Friday afternoon for the first visit of a pope in South Sudan.
Pope calls for end to bloodshed
And in his very first speech, he clearly demanded of the politicians around Head of State Salva Kiir: "Stop the bloodshed! Stop the conflicts! Stop the violence and the mutual accusations and finger-pointing!" Francis said, "Let the people no longer thirst for peace. No more destruction. It is time to build up."
President Kiir also used the Pope's visit to demonstrate his readiness for a lasting peace in the country. He announced his intention to resume the so-called "Rome talks" with those rebel groups who have not yet recognized the peace agreement. "I hope my brothers from the opposition group will reciprocate this gesture and come together with us to achieve comprehensive peace in our country," Kiir said.
Although the civil war that had raged in the country since 2013 officially ended in 2018, daily violence has remained. Nevertheless, the hopes of the South Sudanese in the high guest from the Vatican are not unjustified, as the former opponents, President Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar, had fought their way through to a joint transitional government shortly after a visit to the Vatican in 2019.
Pope Francis prayed with Kiir and Machar at the time, begging them for an end to the conflict. Then he knelt down in front of the two and kissed their feet. Since 2020, Machar - who fell out of favor seven years earlier because of an attempted coup - has been Vice President of South Sudan again. Francis asked for the current situation to be relented "so that this country does not degenerate into a cemetery".
In permanent crisis mode
But the country is still in permanent crisis mode. Clashes recently escalated in the eastern states of Jonglei and Pibor. Violence also breaks out in the Warrap or central Equatoria regions. Ethnic tensions and struggles over scarce resources erupt almost daily in deadly clashes between armed groups. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the number of patients who had to be treated for gunshot wounds has recently skyrocketed again.
"The impact of armed conflict and violence on the people of South Sudan is devastating," said Pierre Dorbes, head of the ICRC's Juba delegation. The Red Cross increased its emergency aid as the violence became more and more brutal. "More and more frequently, we have to fly out injured people from rural areas because it's the only way to save their lives," says Dorbes.
The situation is also very tense in the north of the country on the border with Sudan. It's not just about conflicts between the Islamic north and the Christian south, but also about oil deposits in the border area.
Climate change as a new threat
In addition to the old conflicts, the country has long been struggling with a new threat: climate change. "South Sudan is one of the first prime examples of the effects of climate change," says Ania Okinczyc, Welthungerhilfe's office manager in South Sudan. The country experienced the third consecutive year of severe flooding in 2022. "Last year alone, around half of the country's area was completely under water," said Okinczyc. Although the dry season has begun and there is no more rain, the water is still standing on the fields and in the villages. According to the UN, at least 900,000 people have been affected by the floods.
There is no end in sight to the suffering of the people in South Sudan. The International Rescue Council (IRC) estimates that the number of people in need of humanitarian aid will rise to 9.4 million this year. Three quarters of the 11 million South Sudanese are already dependent on humanitarian aid.