17.04.08 10:18 Age: 4 yrs

"Ignored by the whole world" - a visit to Yambio, Sudan


Metropolitan Dr Zacharias Mar Theophilus: "If you are bound in a community by love and care for the humanity that is the greatest security."

Members of the ecumenical team visiting Yambio, in Southern Sudan, Metropolitan Dr Zacharias Mar Theophilus (second from left) and Bishop Dr. Gerrit Noltensmeier (second from right), meet community members and local church staff. (c) Manoj Kurian / WCC

By Juan Michel (*) 



Metropolitan Dr Zacharias Mar Theophilus, from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, was a member of an ecumenical team that recently visited Sudan's Yambio region. The capital city of West Equatoria state, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yambio is green and fertile. "But the people we met there feel ignored," says Metropolitan Theophilus, "ignored by Khartoum, ignored by Juba, ignored by the whole world."


Khartoum and Juba, the capital cities of Northern and Southern Sudan respectively, are separated by some 1,700 kilometres and the wounds of 21 years of civil war. The conflict between the predominantly Muslim North and the majority Christian South killed some 2 million people and left more than 4 million internally displaced persons.


A Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2005 ended the war but not the problems. Not least being the implementation of the many contentious points of the agreement itself, like border demarcation, sharing of oil revenues and proper preparation of a census and elections.


A predominately agricultural area, Yambio was relatively less affected than other regions during the war. But there have been sporadic tensions between the local Zande population and displaced cattle keeping Dinka. An added plight is the presence in the region of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army. The rebel movement, whose leaders have been issued with war crimes indictments by the International Criminal Court because of the atrocities committed during a 21-year war against the Ugandan government, is known for its cruelty.


A member of the ecumenical team said: "Yambio could be a paradise, but under the current circumstances is simply terrible."


The five-person team visiting Yambio was part of a bigger international ecumenical solidarity visit to Sudan sent by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Council of Churches. From 26 to 31 April, in addition to Yambio, three other teams visited Khartoum, Darfur and Rumbek before joining some 80 Sudanese church representatives - leaders, women and youth - for a three-day conference in Juba. The goal of the visits and conference was to listen to the Sudanese churches' concerns and hopes as well as to express the ecumenical family's solidarity with the churches and people of Sudan.


At the end of the visit, we interviewed Metropolitan Theophilus:


What was the one thing that struck you most during the visit?


The plight of the people. They are still afraid, they suffer from insecurity because of the attacks of the Lord's Resistance Army. Many people are sleeping in the bush, they cannot send the children to school. On the other hand, we saw churches full and united. The people's only hope is the church. So, this solidarity visit was something that strengthened them, encouraged them and gave them hope.


What is the impact of the Lord's Resistance Army presence in the region?


It comes from Uganda and enters the Yambio region killing people, attacking young girls. Even the Catholic bishop is under threat. I did not know about this problem before coming and could only understand its magnitude after the visit. Through the news media I only receive information on what is going on in the Darfur region. But the country is facing other tremendous problems, like the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which is not easy. So the visit was an eye-opener.


What do you think is the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed?


Health. There are a lot of people living with HIV and AIDS. The church and the society as well as the government and the agencies should all together address this problem. There are cases of malnutrition too. They need hospitals and health workers.


Another urgent need is education. Churches should get more involved in this field, in skills and technical training, and the government should support that through funding. People need schools and a university. Nowadays, to access higher education they need to go to neighbouring Uganda or to Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. The high level of unemployment is a consequence of lack of education. Of course the lack of infrastructure does not help and needs to be addressed too.


In Yambio, government and churches have a good cooperation that should be spread to all regions.


How can your church, which is so far away, help the churches in Sudan?


We have been praying for Sudan for several years. Prayer is a very mighty power, a great power that can change things. Once I am back home I will write in the church magazine about what I have seen, and mobilize people to pray and work for peace.


It is true that from a distance we cannot do much, but we can support initiatives taken through the World Council of Churches, for instance supporting its involvement in the CPA process. We could also send teachers - we have plenty of teachers - and maybe some doctors. There should be ways in which we could enter into a relationship with the churches in Sudan.


What do you take back home with you from this visit?


Although the people in Yambio live under very harsh conditions and insecurity, the village system allows them to support each other. They find their security in the love and care of the people, not in the military. This is something the modern world should learn. We think of security in terms of powerful weapons, but if you are bound in a community by love and care for the humanity that is the greatest security. So we have to learn from these villages that our security is ultimately in the hands of God as well as of a loving community. It is hatred that brings insecurity while love brings security. That is something we need to learn.


(*) Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Free high resolution photos from the ecumenical solidarity visit to Sudan are available upon request.


See photo gallery here


Other stories and additional information on the visit


WCC member churches in Sudan