A bishop from a remote corner of south Sudan has said intervention from the international community is desperately needed to protect his people from gangs of guerrilla fighters.
Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio said in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that sporadic attacks on innocent civilians by the Lord’s Resistance Army could not be stopped without help from outside Sudan.
The bishop was speaking after a large gang of LRA soldiers stormed into a church in his diocese and desecrated the building before abducting 17 people, mostly in their teens and 20s. Shortly after the attack on Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Ezo town, one of the young men who had been kidnapped was found dead after being tied to a tree and mutilated.
Of those abducted in the attacks, three returned to safety the following day, leaving 13 still missing a month on from the attacks which took place close to Sudan’s border with Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Less than a week later, close to the nearby town of Nzara, six people were ambushed in a forest and killed after being nailed to pieces of wood fastened to the ground. Those who discovered the bodies several days later likened it to a grotesque crucifixion scene. By then reports had come in of 12 people abducted from a village close to Nzara.
The LRA are notorious for carrying out acts of savagery on their victims. The attacks took place barely a month after a team from ACN carried out a fact-finding and project assessment trip to Tombura-Yambio, which included a visit to Nzara.
In response to the attacks in Ezo and Nzara, Bishop Hiiboro spearheaded a three-day prayer event involving Christians of all denominations across Western Equatoria State. At its climax, 20,000 people walked more than two miles barefoot in sackcloth and ashes in silent protest at alleged government inaction to step up security in the region.
Local government ministers, both from the state capital, Yambio, and Juba, the provincial capital of south Sudan, took part in the prayer event and pledged to do more to boost the police presence in the region.
In his interview with ACN, the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Bishop Hiiboro made clear that the attack in Ezo was part of a cycle of violence that could only be broken with international cooperation. He said, “The government here cannot make a real difference to the LRA problem. They kept promising that they had the issue under control but now we see the reality.”
“Nobody is coming to our aid,” he said. “We are asking those who are responsible in the international community to do something about it.”
He described how in Ezo hundreds of people were taking part in a Novena prayer marking the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven when they were attacked by the LRA who ripped altar cloths, desecrated the host and damaged other church property. Bishop Hiiboro said, “The attackers clearly wanted to harm the people because they knew they were at prayer.”
He added that the fighters chased the parish priest of Ezo, Fr. Justin, who ran for his life and spent the night in a nearby forest before finding safety the next day. He continued, “What happened in August was a huge shock to us. It was hard to take in the fact that we were so exposed to such a risk.”
“Afterwards people kept coming to me with such suffering in their eyes, begging me to do something about the situation – to get back their children and grandchildren who have disappeared,” the bishop said. “Although we knew the three days of prayer would attract a large number of people – the number there was about double what I had hoped for. It was amazing.”
Bishop Hiiboro continued, saying, “The emphasis of the prayer meetings was on coming to terms with what has happened in Western Equatoria and renewing our spiritual life. We wanted to make a silent protest to tell the government that things weren’t going well.”
As well as involving local government representatives in the meetings, Bishop Hiiboro wrote to the authorities in Khartoum (Government of National Unity). He underlined that according to the post civil war peace settlement, the Khartoum regime is tasked with responding when neighboring countries threaten south Sudan as well as the north.
Sudan is the priority country in Africa for Aid to the Church in Need. Last year (2008), ACN provided more than $1.7 million to help the Church there.