A boy fetches water in an internally displaced person camp in Juba, South Sudan.

CNS PHOTO | JIM LOPEZ, EPA

A boy fetches water in an internally displaced person camp in Juba, South Sudan.

November 3, 2014
KIPLY LUKAN YAWORSKI
PRAIRIE MESSENGER

SASKATOON – Civil war and famine are threatening the lives of innocent people in South Sudan, says a Saskatoon diocesan priest who hails from the east African nation.

"Close to four million people are at risk of starvation," Father Martin Francis Vuni Asida told an Amnesty International meeting at a local Lutheran church.

Conflict between government troops and those who support the country's former vice-president broke out in December 2013. Since the violence began, an estimated 1.3 million people 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.

MASS GRAVES

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.

The country's bishops described this conflict as "one of the gravest situations we have ever faced," he said.

Asida is currently serving in the Saskatoon Diocese as pastor of parishes at Delisle, Vanscoy and Asquith.

For several years he 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.

Human Rights Watch has stated that the crimes against civilians in South Sudan over the past months, including ethnic killings, will "resonate for decades."

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

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 will not bring a lasting solution, he said. Accountability and a healing of the deep wounds caused by the violence are needed.

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.

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.

Asida told of a recent call from a friend back home who 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.

RURAL POPULATION

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.

Transportation 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 to work to stop the war.

As well, the number of United Nations personnel in the country should be increased, he said.

A lack of media attention – and a government crackdown on South Sudanese journalists and media outlets – means there is little worldwide awareness about the situation, he said.