This week’s guest blog is written by Heather Peters, former MCC service worker in South Sudan, currently employed as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.
From 2010 to 2012 my partner Joel and I were MCC service workers in South Sudan, seconded to a Catholic Diocese as Peace and Justice Coordinators. In this role we would often travel to different churches and meet with community groups to discuss how peace was practiced in a “post-conflict society.” (Northern and southern Sudan had signed a peace agreement in 2005 ending the 22-year civil war.) For many people peace meant the ability to walk for water without fear, to send their children to school, and have access to a health clinic.
However, this vision of peace was still unattainable for many communities. After the civil war ended, violent conflict between tribal groups in the south increased – due in part to the trauma experienced during the war and by long-held grievances and mistrust of the different tribes. This meant that life was still insecure as people struggled to maintain the basics for survival and feared neighbouring villages which might retaliate for a past wrong. In discussions about peace, many people would advocate the importance of seeking reconciliation within their families; they could not think about reconciliation with an enemy tribal group.
We were deeply saddened to hear about the outbreak of violent armed conflict that began in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, in mid-December 2013. This conflict had been instigated by a political division in the government but was being played out along tribal lines. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having gained independence in 2011. It has faced many challenges in its birth – building infrastructure, government, and identity. It has also had much support from international organizations, including MCC, to work at these structures.
But change comes slowly. We were often asked if we saw success in our peacebuilding work in the country. This was a hard question to answer. In many ways we saw our work as preparing soil for seeds of peace to be planted. It was still much too early in the story of South Sudan to know how and when these seeds would take root.
It is easy to feel discouraged and depressed about what is happening in South Sudan. The violence in Juba has spread throughout the country. Civilians have been killed and displaced. South Sudanese people are again becoming victims in a political struggle over which they have little control. These are people Joel and I know. People we worked beside. We listened to their stories, we held their children, we shared food together. And together we struggled to prepare the land for peace.
Despite the years of conflict, we found people in every community, who had chosen to break free from the cycle of violence and walk a path that shunned revenge and advocated forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. These people were our teachers in how to live in a “post-conflict society” that was still filled with much conflict. These people gave us strength in the work of peacebuilding. They are the ones that held the seeds of peace.
South Sudan is a country that is so much more than its wars and conflicts. The work that MCC has done in the past years in South Sudan portrays the richness that the country and its people have to offer. The relationships that have been formed and nourished strengthen our MCC presence, which will continue despite the current conflict.
On Christmas Day, Jok Madut Jok, who lives and works in Juba, wrote on his Facebook wall: “It takes more courage to be a peace messenger than a warrior and you save more lives with a message of peace than wielding a machine gun. It might not appear so in the immediate, but it will prove so in the long run. God bless us all, South Sudan and the world.”
As we remember the people of South Sudan and the current struggles there, we also remember the people who are embodying hope and planting the seeds of peace.