By komakech James kenyi
From a promising Town and well established Parish to a devastated scenario
Kajo-Keji is a county located in the southern part of the South Sudan, sharing the border with Moyo district on the Ugandan side of the newly created Yei River state. It is the home of the Kuku, Ngepo and Liwolo, a group of Nilo-hamites Bari-speaking people with a population of about one million habitants. The people living in Kajo-Keji area are mostly farmers and known for living peacefully in their ever-green undulating land with a landscape that also shows some hills that form a plateau.
Kajo-Keji County was affected by the 21 years of Sudan’s civil war as the southern region struggled for independence. The local population was forced to take refuge in neighbouring countries for many years. Many of them returned home immediately after the signing of the 2005 peace agreement. By 2010, more than half of the population in the diaspora had returned home and resettled into the five Payams of Kajo-Keji. A record 99% of Kajo-Keji residents voted for the separation of southern Sudan from North Sudan at the 2011 Referendum. People were encouraged to work hard, go to school and to do business. Schools, health facilities and recreation centres were built with the support of churches and international organisations.
Fostering integral evangelisation
The Catholic missionaries – Comboni Fathers, Brothers and Sisters – played a very important role in the process of evangelising and developing Kajo-Keji and many other areas of South Sudan. The Comboni missionaries, with the collaboration of the local community and other pastoral agents, have run the Sacred Heart Parish of Kajo-Keji since 1986. The results of their work are schools, health centres, boreholes and the well-structured St. Martin Workshop which was established to train and empower women/men of South Sudan by developing their skills and teaching them a trade like welding, weaving, bakery, carpentry, building etc. The missionary work that is certainly most visible is the Christian community they helped build. Among the missionaries, three priests remain in the memories of the local community long after their demise: Fr. Eugenio Magni, Fr. John Ferasin and Fr. Mattia Bizzaro, together with their companions, worked hard to evangelise the community of Kajo-Keji and to support people in their struggle for a better South Sudan.
Travelling to a ghost town: witness’s account
I am from Kajo-Keji and a witness of all remarkable works that the Comboni missionaries with the local church, other churches, NGOs and government have done for and with the people of Kajo-Keji. They set up 16 secondary schools, primary schools and health facilities. The most important of them is the Comboni Comprehensive College, a nationally recognised church boarding school that welcomes boys and girls from all over the country. Currently, I live abroad but my family remains in Kajo-Keji. I was, however, very sad and distressed to hear the reports of what had happened to Kajo-Keji County and its population in the course of this persistent war in South Sudan.
I had the chance to return to my birthplace, to come home and see my family. I was happy to see my loved ones, but very sad to find that Kajo-Keji had turned into a ghost town. My home parish is now occupied by heavily armed soldiers who are also partly responsible for the looting of both public and private properties. I left my residence in Kenya in May 2017 and set off on a holiday trip , heading to Uganda to be with my family. On arrival in Moyo District, it was a striking sight seeing my family still living as refugees. The missionaries, faithful to their vocation, left Kajo-Keji to reside in Uganda together with hundreds of thousands of refugees from different parts of South Sudan in order to remain close to the people they evangelise.
During my holiday, I got the chance to visit Kajo-Keji. I was eager to see how it looked like following the fighting that forced people out of their homes. I joined a pastoral team that took the risk to collect the few remaining machines and other items that survived the looting of the church facilities to enter South Sudan. A good amount of money had to be paid for us to pass through the border that was guarded by heavily armed soldiers.There was dead silence from Jale border all the way to the army’s main barracks. A true ghost town. We came across some soldiers in SPLA-marked uniforms who appeared to be carrying looted items. We also met a lonely old man who said he had given up hiding and decided to stay next to the road without fear of any of the two armed forces engaged in the fighting.
A looted and desolated scenario
We finally made it to what used to be the town and centre of the Catholic mission. All houses, shops, dispensaries, schools, churches and other buildings along the road and in town had been looted, including the Comboni Comprehensive College and St. Martin Workshop. The recently inaugurated parish church, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was not spared either; it was broken into and vandalised.
Fortunately, a few machines at St. Martin Workshop had not been looted. As we were loading them onto a lorry, some armed soldiers, accompanied by some women and children, came and surrounded us and went on looting what was left despite our presence, it was very sad and frustrating to witness this action which made one of the Brothers to painfully shed tears. The hard work of many years to establish St. Martin Workshop for the benefit of Kajo-Keji population was being dismantled and brought to zero by a handful of greedy people.
The scenario in the parish church was also desolating. We found the chalice, a few hosts and the lectionary left on the floor. The images of Jesus Christ, St. Daniel Comboni and St. Josephine Bakhita were still hanging on the walls… I just knelt down at the tabernacle and prayed: “Lord Jesus, St. Comboni and St. Bakhita, why all this? Please, grant us peace in South Sudan and change the hearts and minds of these uncouth soldiers and of our selfish leaders. Help us to make South Sudan the country of our dreams”. I picked the Bible, the chalice, the hosts and some wine, among other things, and left the church for the residence of the missionaries. The doors had been broken and removed. It was the same picture as the church schools: computers, invertors, batteries and solar panels had all been looted. Books were taken out of the library and scattered around the compound and further ruined by the rain.
Mission continues despite the challenges…
The church has always been with the people of Kajo-Keji both during the civil war and in the process of building the new nation and it stays with them during this crisis. Back across the border in Uganda, I have seen that the two Comboni communities of Kajo-Keji have improvised a facility in Moyo district where they work together with the local parish priest under Arua Diocese to assist the refugee communities. They obviously face many challenges; The refugee communities are made up of people from different ethnic groups so they speak different languages. The facilities in the camps are inadequate and insufficient. People hold meetings under the trees, including prayers and teaching. They also face long distances and poor accessibility to the camps.
Humanitarian agencies operating in the area have done a lot for the refugees. Each refugee family has been given a piece of land of 600 square meters to cultivate. This is good, but not enough. There is still no clean water in some locations and medical care is rare. Due to the heavy rains, some areas of the refugee camps have been flooded. Many families lost a lot of the little they were able to carry while fleeing their homes. Agencies were not always able to give a rapid response to relocate the affected families. The levels of stress, trauma and frustration are very high among the refugee families. This contributes to a lot of psychosocial problems. It has been noticed that many South Sudanese refugees, especially youth, are indulging into excessive drinking and recreational harmful drugs.
Domestic violence is also a sad reality. A man allegedly slaughtered his wife due to a simple misunderstanding while other people have died of heart attacks probably due to the high level of stress caused by the situation they have found themselves in. As a young Southern Sudanese, this has been very challenging for me, I have too many questions and no answers: Questions about ethics and good governance or what would be the true objectives and vision of a prosperous nation from our leaders’ perspective; Questions about a disciplined SPLA.
And the questions remain on how to have access to true justice while struggling to achieve peace in South Sudan.
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