John K. Guiney SJ, director of the Mission Office, has returned from South Sudan with a grim question: ‘Do they know it’s Christmas in Maban, South Sudan?’: “Christmas is coming fast and Dublin is full of bling and decoration. I am just back from Maban, a refugee camp in South Sudan where two Spanish Jesuits Pau and Alvaro lead the Jesuit Refugee Service team working in challenging circumstances. Their work is supported by the Irish Jesuit Mission office with other Mission offices in Europe. Travelling to Maban is a challenge. You need to reach the NE corner of the South Sudan border with Sudan and Ethiopia. It is a 2 hour ride from Juba on a small plane with World Food Programme. It travels every Tuesday and Friday. Maban is only accessible by plane at present because of the rains and insecurity. It is a tent city of 140,000 refugees fleeing the Blue Nile conflict of Sudan and 60,000 returnees from different refugee camps in Eastern Africa.
There have been 2 evacuations of JRS and other humanitarian staff in the past year because of insecurity. The first took place in December 2013 when the national conflict exploded in Juba- all NGO staff was advised to leave their work stations. In July 2014 the local militia attacked Nuer groups and killed 5 humanitarian drivers. All NGO staff except essential support staff was advised to move. JRS and some humanitarian workers returned in September.To say the work there is challenging is an understatement and the work of JRS and other humanitarian agencises is heroic in very difficult circumstances. Many have been living in tents in 40 degree heat in the past year.
Some of the greatest challenges are the following: The complexity of the conflicts affecting the local and refugee population: Maban is the meeting place of many conflicts. The majority of the refugees flee the conflict in the Blue Nile within the Sudan. They seek autonomy from the Khartoum Government and are in negotiation with the government for some form of independence. There are many political factions and militias within the Blue Nile state seeking such autonomy, at times in a splintered fashion. This movement for autonomy is supported militarily and politically by the South Sudan Government and training and trading of arms takes place on the borders.
Another significant group are the returnees (60,000 approx). They have come back from exile after the 25-year war. They live in temporary dwellings in a county where there are few services. Their livelihoods are on the edge of survival and their post-independence expectations of a better life have been dashed.
Another conflict existing in the area is the tension between the locally formed militia and groups within the national army present within the area. This conflict is an off-shoot of the national conflict which split Nuer versus Dinka. The Nuer who have remained in the national army view other ethnic army members with suspicion, and they in turn are viewed with suspicion by other army members and local militias. This tension could blow up at any time, as happened in July when the local militia attacked the Nuer army members in Maban. The JRS team works within the confluence of many conflicts and their presence and work there is remarkable.
Accessibility and climate: It is an isolated zone and landlocked at present because of rebel movements in the area. Communication by road in and out of Sudan and Ethiopia and down South to Juba has been affected by bad rains and floods and also insecurity. Basic supplies are not easy to access locally and everything has to come in by plane, especially in the wet season, which is expensive and slow. Building supplies are very expensive. One bag of cement costs US $130 in Maban in November 2014.Midday heat reaches 40s at times and malaria is frequent in the area. Security: On Thursday 13 Nov.2014 The SudanGovernment bombed Maban county. This is the first time cross border bombing took place in this area since independence. Casualties were brought to the hospital in Bunj town on the day of my arrival. Rebel movements were reported on 16 Nov moving to the Blue Nile, seeking training and arms. On the night of 17 Nov there was armed robbery of stores in Bunj town near our compund. Security is fragile and its maintenance depends on so many factors such as the peace talks in Addis, the behaviour of local militias and commanders and developments in Blue Nile. Some forecast a resumption of hostilities on a national level when the rainy season ends in December.
Weak local structures: Maban county and payams like all parts of S. Sudan is striving to put in place local governance structures and services. Many exist in name but do not function. The local education department for example do not know how many primary schools actually function. Recent research done by NGOs show most have closed down and the teachers who have been unpaid have gone to work elsewhere in NGOS. Less than 20% of children of school-going age attend school. As in many conflict and emergency situations, there are dual economies and governances operating in parallel – the local fractured one and the one operated by the humanitarian agencies in the county. The reality of Maban is that the refugee community have more services available to it than the host community. This has the potential to create real tension between the two communities.
Continuity and consolidation; The JRS effort in Maban has had a short and interrupted year but has made real connexions to the refugee community, host community and other stakeholders. There is a capital of good will amongst all the actors in the environment. Real work is taking place in teacher training, psychosocial and pastoral activities. So many people mentioned spontaneously to me as a visitor that the JRS presence in the area makes such a real difference. This is a great credit to the present team.
What is key to the maintenance and the building up of the project is continual presence of the JRS core team. Another evacuation would be difficult for the teams both physically and psychologically and could lead to the closure of the project. Urgent need for peace . There is a crisis of leadership in South Sudan, and as the Swahili proverb says, when elephants fight the grass gets hurt. Too many people are hurting at present –almost 4 million need direct assistance within South Sudan – national and local leaders need to wake up to the suffering of their people and fight for and build peace and not for war and division.
They know it is Christmas in Maban: The JRS presence and service in Maban is indeed Christmas not only for the Christians but also for the thousands of Muslims in the camps. 70% of ther camp are women and children who are always the most vulnerable in war. The presence of Jesuit Refugee Service, their dedicated service in education, psycho-soical work and pastoral outreach to all refugees is a real sign that God has not forgotten them but has come to be amongst them.
Christmas comes to all of us not by the size and quantity of our presents to one another but by the quality of our presence to each other. The personal, compassionate and listening presence of JRS amongst the most vulnerable in Maban is a sure sign that Christmas is coming and indeed already arrived in the most isolated refugee camp in the world.