To be in a refugee camp is “to touch the failure of humanity in all its crudeness.” The Jesuit Pau Vidal was born 40 years ago in Barcelona and five years ago he was ordained a priest. He has been in the world’s youngest country since 2014, where thousands of people have died and millions have left home because of the civil war that arose after independence. The conflict, which began as a power struggle between President Kiir and ex-President Machar, quickly became a struggle between the two ethnic groups they represent: the Dinkas and the Nuers. “The shadow of a genocide is very present,” he warns. Although we must not forget the interests of oil, abundant in the country. A month ago the Government recognized an unprecedented famine situation.
They had been fighting for 50 years with Sudan and when they achieved independence, they returned to arms, this time among the South Sudanese themselves. What’s happening here?
The problem comes from the corrupt, power-hungry elites who have brought this beautiful country back to war, this time between factions and ethnic groups.
Even the security represented by the Army has disappeared. According to a US report the soldiers are collecting by force what the government does not pay.
The Government does not offer basic services, nor does it pay its officials. In this context, a person with a weapon (even a soldier or a policeman) is certainly more of a threat rather than protection for the civilian population. Often the government itself is the aggressor.
Who are the refugees in South Sudan?
We work with 135,000 refugees from Sudan (north) who left their country because of the bombing by their government. We also work with the local community, greatly affected by the civil war.
What is life like in a refugee camp?
Hard. The most difficult in the time of exile is the memory of the brutalities suffered, the loss of loved ones and, above all, the uncertainty. To live here is to touch the failure of an unjust world and the dynamics of inhuman power and progress generating millions of refugees.
But you also say that in the midst of so much failure there is light and hope …
The lives of the refugees are not only pain, abandonment, violence, but also, strangely, lives marked by joy, healing, celebration and beauty.
What is the purpose of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the project?
Here in Maban, the JRS, with the support of Entreculturas and other sister organizations, helps the most vulnerable with psychosocial support and the youth with recreational activities. We also focus on education and pastoral activity.
How is one pastorally accompanied in a situation of war?
I walk every day with my beloved refugee God. The experience of displacement is fundamental in the Bible; the core of the Christian faith can not be understood without understanding and living in some way the option that God makes for the poor, the migrants and the displaced. From this certainty I try to accompany the refugee people.
At the end of February the government declared famine in several areas of the north. What circumstances brought them to such a point?
This alarming situation of famine, with more than five million people at risk, has undoubtedly been provoked by the war. The displacement of more than three million people has robbed them of the possibility of cultivating their lands and feeding their families. In addition, there is a collapsed economy, with inflation soaring, the local currency depreciated savagely and, therefore, exorbitant commodity prices. This, together with the drought, results in an enormous humanitarian crisis (the worst of the whole continent). There are areas where the situation is irreversible, especially if firearms do not cease and humanitarian aid is not allowed.
Hunger, violence and war. How do you survive?
I feel privileged to be close to the poor and to discover the face of Christ in them. The bishops of South Sudan recently reported on a note of a possible visit from the Pope, and that fills us with hope. May the hearts of stone become hearts of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. The innocent people of South Sudan are fed up with so much war and want peace.
Cristina Sánchez Aguilar, in collaboration wit Entreculturas