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Religious in South Sudan: 'When we go out in the morning, we don't know if we'll come back alive in the evening'
"It was a deliberate campaign of intimidation. They want us to go away from here!"
By Eva-Maria Kolmann
NEW YORK—Two women religious had a lucky escape recently. They had only just left the refugee camp when shooting broke out. The man accompanying them was hit by rebel machine gun fire and died instantly. Their habits were covered in blood.
The young country’s civil war is raging just outside the gates of the refugee camp in Juba, which is home to 28,000 families. Sisters of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate regularly visit the sick and needy there.
The sisters’ average age is just 28. Most of them are from India, where their congregation was founded. For many of them it is the first time in their lives that they have been confronted first-hand with warfare.
Not long ago, Sister Maya was just washing some items of clothing in the convent, when armed men burst into the room. One of them held a gun to her chin while another held a knife to her throat. They dragged the young sister into the dining room, where three other sisters were sitting reading. Guns were put to their heads, while other men looted the house. Sister Vijii said afterwards: “It was a deliberate campaign of intimidation. They want us to go away from here!"
Father Albert Amal Raj of the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, the male branch, has also been threatened numerous times. "When we go out of the house in the morning, we do not know if we will come home alive that evening,” the Indian priest told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. On one occasion his car was stopped and he got beaten up by a policeman. Father Raj said that “they thought our car was a rebel vehicle. Many of them also believe that foreign organizations are supporting the rebels and providing them with weapons and other support. When the policemen realized that I was a priest, they apologized. That is why I now always wear a large cross, very visibly on a chain, so people can see that I'm a priest."
Working in some of the country’s most remote regions, the male missionaries focus in particular on teaching children—who are hooked on war games—to cherish life. “Many of them have actually witnessed their own family members being killed. Human life is worth very little here,” said Father Raj.
The women religious, meanwhile, are helping people still recovering from Sudan’s more than two decades-long civil war, a conflict that killed more than 2 million and left millions more displaced. Many were forced to see their husbands, wives, children, parents and siblings brutally murdered.
Sister Vijii is not afraid for her own life, even though she can hear shootings and bombings every day. "Some organizations have advised us to leave South Sudan. It is too dangerous here, they tell us, and there will never be peace. But we have come here to share the sufferings of the people and so, as long as there are still people here, we too will stay."
ACN photo: serving children in South Sudan