Sudanese Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala has a wrenching plea to the international community on behalf of Christians and others in South Sudan: Help us.
The plea is based on Hiiboro's harrowing accounts of escalating violence in the increasingly unstable region. The Catholic bishop in the remote area of Tombura-Yambio says a gang of soldiers from the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) stormed congregants at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church last month, dragging away 17 people, mostly youth.
What happened next has devastated the church, says Hiiboro. Shortly after the attack, one of the abducted young men was found tied to a tree, mutilated and dead. Three people returned safely, but another 13 remain missing.
The brutal attack is one slice of the rising violence in South Sudan, but the strife in the South attracts scant attention: International observers remain focused on the country's western region of Darfur, where UN officials say violence is declining. During a speech at the United Nations last week, President Barack Obama emphasized pursuing peace in Sudan by supporting Darfur. While Obama also mentioned the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that is supposed to protect the South, he said nothing about the escalating bloodshed threatening the vulnerable population.
Hiiboro told Catholic aid agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) how vulnerable his flock remains: "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."
According to ACN, Hiiboro hasn't retrieved those who are lost, but the bishop did organize a three-day prayer meeting that attracted some 20,000 people from churches and government agencies all over South Sudan. Hiiboro said the turnout was twice what he expected.
The meeting included prayer, worship, and a two-mile barefoot walk by participants. The walk represented what Hiiboro called a "sacrificial protest" of the government's lack of protection for residents in the South.
Since the beginning of this year, hundreds have died violently in South Sudan. Some of the murders stem from inter-tribal fighting over resources like cattle, land, and water. But international observers say the raids have increasingly included attacks on women and children, an alarming development in a region recovering from a 20-year civil war with the North. Members of the Uganda-based LRA also roam the region, slipping across the border to seize resources and men for fighting.
Days after the attack on Hiiboro's church, another ambush killed six people in a nearby town. Locals said they found the slain victims nailed to pieces of wood fastened to the ground. Last week, the international news agency AFP reported that 100 people died when members of the Lou section of the Nuer ethnic group raided a Dinka village in Jonglei.
Government officials in South Sudan have accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of ordering his Northern party officials to arm militias in the South to destabilize the region months before nationwide elections in April of next year. Some say that if a fair election is even possible in the volatile political climate, it will grow nearly impossible if the region grows more dangerous.
International forces are unlikely to intervene in the South, leaving residents dependent on their own warring factions and the forces they mistrust in the North. For Christians like Hiiboro, the instability underscores the urgency of praying for God's protection: "What happened in August was a huge shock to us. It was hard to take in the fact that we were exposed to such a risk."