By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service
YAKIMA, Wash. (CNS) — While many foreigners have fled the fighting in South Sudan, an international group of Catholic volunteers has remained at the side of the people they came to serve.
"None of our group has left the country because of the violence. Being in solidarity means being one with the people. It means standing faithfully beside them at this tragic time," said Sister Cathy Arata, a School Sister of Notre Dame from New Jersey, in a phone interview from Juba, the nation’s capital.
Sister Arata works with Solidarity with South Sudan, an international network of more than 225 Catholic congregations and donor agencies supporting the church in South Sudan, which in 2011 became independent from the north of the country.
Fighting broke out in Juba Dec. 15 between ethnic Dinka and Nuer in the presidential guard, months after President Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, fired his vice president, Riek Machar, who is Nuer. The fighting spread quickly to other parts of the country, killing at least 1,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. The conflict raised fears of an all-out conflict between the country’s two largest groups.
Many foreigners fled quickly. The U.S. Embassy in Juba evacuated most of its staff and urged U.S. citizens in the country to leave.
Solidarity with South Sudan provides training for teachers, health workers and pastoral agents. Sister Arata said her group told 16 short-term volunteers scheduled to arrive in January to cancel their travel plans, yet none of the 32 long-term members working in the country have left unless they already had plans to leave for Christmas.
The group’s activities in Yambio and Rumbek remain unaffected. A health training institute in Wau will start classes in January two weeks later than planned because students do not yet feel safe to travel.
The group is suspending its teacher training operations in war-torn Malakal, however, where some of the worst fighting has taken place. Sister Arata said it was impossible for students to travel there for classes.
Five members of Solidarity were in Malakal during the height of the violence. One Ethiopian member of the group was trapped in the United Nations camp, but the other four, including Father Michael Bassano, a Maryknoll priest from the United States, were trapped in the Solidarity house, which is located close to two military barracks that came under attack by rebels.
Sister Elizabeth Ryan, an Irish member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, said the fighting in Malakal began in earnest Dec. 23.
"We were really in a war zone. It was appalling. We all hunkered down in a small room beside our chapel, laying low on the floor, and when the fighting would let up a bit we’d stand up and relax a bit, but then run again when the shooting and bombardment would resume," Sister Ryan told Catholic News Service.
"It was our personal choice to stay there. But church people usually don’t go away when things get difficult," she said. "We came to South Sudan for a reason, to help them build a new nation. And we’re going to stay for the same reason."
The fighting in Malakal continued for four days until the rebels ran low on ammunition and fresh government troops arrived to push them out of the city.
Once Solidarity decided to suspend its Malakal operations, Sister Ryan flew to Rumbek Jan. 2, where she will help train teachers in a program which has not been directly affected by the conflict.
In Juba, a nighttime curfew remains in place.
"Things are quiet here," Sister Arata said. "We’re hoping that something will happen in the peace talks" currently underway in Ethiopia.
On Jan. 6, the day the peace talks began in Addis Ababa, Sister Arata said she helped with Mass in one of the U.N. camps in Juba where thousands of displaced families remain, afraid to go home.
"We said Mass on a tiny altar in the middle of the squalor. We celebrated the Eucharist where they were building latrines," she said. "Yet we witnessed the human condition in its most pristine form, because the people are really one with each other. They are afraid because of what has happened, but they have such faith in God that they say, ‘God will get us through this, just as God has gotten us through everything else.’ During the Mass the singing and the dancing were just like in the parishes; you wouldn’t know they were living in a refugee camp because they were so involved in the celebration and praising God.
"I was privileged to be there at this moment, as I felt surrounded by the suffering Christ in our midst," she added.
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Editor’s Note: Journalist Paul Jeffrey has spent months in South Sudan reporting on the situation there. He telephoned some of his contacts for this story.
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