Movement of Dinka fleeing South Sudan violence increases tensions
Catholic News Service
NIMULE, South Sudan — South Sudan's recent political strife has sent a quarter million people into exile in neighboring countries while 800,000 remain displaced inside the country. Yet in some places far from the actual fighting, the population movements are sparking new conflicts, threatening to spread the violence into previously peaceful areas of the nation.
In Nimule, a small city tucked against the country's southern border with Uganda, hundreds of Dinka families fleeing from fighting around Bor in the central part of the country have arrived en masse, along with their cattle, in recent weeks. Many residents of Nimule, most members of the Ma'adi tribe, already nurse resentment about the waves of Dinka families who arrived during brutal periods of the country's liberation struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. Those Dinka came when the Ma'adi had fled to Uganda, only to stay on. When the Ma'adi eventually came home, many found Dinkas living on their lands and in their houses.
"When the refugees came back, they found their places occupied by the displaced. The government tried to get them to go back but failed. To this day, some people from here remain in Uganda because the displaced took their places," said Father John Sebit of St. Patrick Parish in Nimule.
"Now they are coming here again. Land is scarce. People feel their land has been occupied once again."
The government has encouraged the displaced families to move to the northeast, where land is available for cattle to graze, but the Dinka are concerned about cattle raiders there. They are unlikely to return anytime soon to Bor, which continues to be plagued by fighting and where displaced families from Duk have moved into many of the homes the Dinka left behind. The result, Father Sebit said, is that the Dinka prefer to stay amid the Ma'adi, who are farmers with few cattle.
"The Ma'adi are the most peaceful people in South Sudan. Everyone knows that. That's why the others choose to come here. They don't want to go to other places because they know the Ma'adi won't lift up a stone or a stick to throw at them," he told Catholic News Service.
Yet Ma'adi leaders have thrown harsh words at the newcomers. In a March letter to the governor of Eastern Equatoria State, several prominent Ma'adi chiefs complained that displaced people "can't choose where to settle and they should not dictate to the host community which places (will) be given to them. It is the prerogative of the hosts to decide with the approval of the state government where to settle the visitors. To us the Ma'adi people, these people claiming to be internally displaced are invaders with a long-term plan to take over Ma'adi land."
In an Easter message to the faithful, Msgr. Thomas Oliha Attiyah, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Torit, called on local leaders to be generous.
"We thank you all for keeping and preserving peace in the state," he wrote. "The gift of Easter is peace amongst us. In charity, let us share the land with our displaced brothers and sisters. They are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. You are practicing solidarity in your own country. Solidarity is a virtue of human mercy and compassion. Thank you for your act of solidarity toward the needy neighbor."
The diocese has responded with more than encouraging words. A mobile medical clinic was established in January to attend to the urgent health needs of the new arrivals. Run by the diocesan Caritas agency, it also serves poor Ma'adi neighborhoods, thus avoiding the dangerous perception that newcomers can get care unavailable to longtime residents.
Caritas officials said many of the displaced families have arrived in terrible shape.
"They have nothing. They are sleeping under the trees. The rains are coming. The possibilities of having a cholera or diarrhea outbreak are very high. Already respiratory infections are common, and many of the displaced women were raped as they fled," Margaret Pacho, diocesan outreach coordinator, said.
Six days a week, the mobile clinic sets up shop in a different neighborhood. It provides a variety of medical care, including malaria screening, immunizations, HIV testing and a prenatal clinic.
Less than 20 percent of the displaced children have been vaccinated, Pacho said. Severe malnutrition is common, so the clinic sends many mothers home with packets of high protein paste for their children.
Reenae Anuor Ondiek is a counselor for the program. She seeks out reluctant patients that do not come to the clinic.
"I go door to door, or tree to tree, to know the people's condition," she told CNS. "Most of the displaced are women with children, including children they've adopted in the war. Some of the children were born in the forest and haven't gone for vaccination. I find many women whose husbands are soldiers and don't provide for them. So the women are always depressed. And they have every reason to be depressed. But you have to show them the life beyond the bad."
Local officials at first prohibited nongovernmental groups from assisting the new arrivals in an attempt to discourage the displaced people from staying. Yet Caritas started its clinic anyway, and the local government finally relented. Aid groups have dug wells and provided shelter material to several hundred displaced families in Melijo, a long day's walk from Nimule.
Pacho said the church has set a tone in responding to the displaced that she has seen being emulated by others, including the local government.
"The church is always a mother and a father and a peacemaker to the government, and they are now working very closely in cooperation with us," she said. "We make sure the people understand that the church is working closely with the government. People believe in the church."