As the civil war in South Sudan heightens, millions are fleeing their homes for safer ground, which many have found at St. Mary Help of Christian's Cathedral in Wau, the country's second largest city.
“Those who flee believe that even rebels still fear God and would not slaughter civilians in the backyard of a church,” said Fr. Moses Peter, a priest at St. Mary's, according to IRIN News. “Many other churches have also taken in hundreds of people,” he said.
South Sudan has been in the middle of a brutal civil war for the past three-and-a-half years, which has divided the young country between those loyal to its President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former vice president Reik Machar. The conflict has also bred various divisions of militia and opposition groups. Since the beginning of the war around 4 million citizens have left the violence-stricken country in hopes of finding peace, food and work.
This week, neighboring Uganda received the one-millionth South Sudanese refugee, highlighting the crisis as the world's fastest growing refugee epidemic. For those who have not fled the nation, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeking refuge in churches — including St. Mary's Cathedral, which is the country's largest church and is located Wau. Over 10,000 people now seek shelter there.
The city of Wau, in the northern part of the country, had gone years without being touched by the brutality of the war, which originally drew IDPs to the area. But that changed this spring, when the conflict widened its reach to the area. Among the IDPs are usually women, children and those who have lost most of their families in the war. Many are too fearful to stay in their homes because they know they could be killed, tortured, raped or even forced into fighting.
“Soldiers burned our houses, took our cattle, and almost murdered my whole village,” said Maria, a disabled, elderly woman who has been living at St. Marys for the past year. “I don't know why I was spared, but I was left alone and helpless,” Maria said. A blind man named Juda, who is also staying at St. Mary’s, said that he “has nothing to return to, so I will wait here in the church.” While the 61-year-old church welcomes those seeking refuge, it is running low on food supplies.
It has been four months since the last food distribution from the World Food Programme. Local bishops have also called for food aid and peace negotiations in the country, voicing their frustrations that their pleas have not been heard. “Those who have the ability to make changes for the good of our people have not taken heed of our previous pastoral messages,” stated a Fed. 23 message from the South Sudanese bishops.
Despite successful partnerships between the local church, aid agencies and government, the refugees are still in need of a proper supply of food. However, the church has made recent upgrades, including water pumps, toilets, classrooms, and health offices, which were set up by international aid agencies.
While St. Mary's may feel like a safe haven for many, the war rages on only 20 miles from the city. Local relief workers have faced various threats, and security at the church consists of only one guard. “Between hunger and insecurity, people face a lot of pressure here,” Fr. Peter said.
One local businessman, Hasan, said that the famine in the country is not due to food shortage, but rather a result of corruption, inflation and lootings. “There could be enough for all,” he told IRIN, saying, “if people had money, food would be available to them.”
The refugee crisis will persist as long as the bloodshed and violence in the country continues. However, international peacemaking efforts have stalled and neither side of the conflict have made advances towards a truce. “I am not confident about peace,” said Juda, the blind man at St. Mary's. “If it doesn’t come, I don’t know if I’ll ever have a place to call home again besides this church.”