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‘We are all traumatised’: an interview with South Sudan’s senior churchman

Bishop Kussala: his mother was killed when he was still a baby (CNS)

Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala is a man on a mission. Born in what is now South Sudan in 1964, he has been a priest for 25 years and bishop of the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, South Sudan, since 2008. Bishop Kussala is also president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference. If this were not enough to keep him busy, he is chancellor of the Catholic University of South Sudan, too.

Earlier this autumn, I sat down with Bishop Kussala at the Jesuit residence of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to talk about his life, work and the reasons for his visit to the United States as the representative of the US-based Sudan Relief Fund.

The bishop’s backstory reflects the turbulent reality of post-colonial Africa. He recalled the impact of his mother’s violent death when he was two months old. He was raised by his grandmother, whom he called “a serious Catholic” who had been formed by the Comboni Missionaries. They lived in a refugee camp for five years before returning to Sudan.

“When I was old enough, my grandmother told me the names of exactly who killed my mother and I grew up hating them and their communities. But later, when I was in the seminary, a Jesuit priest from the United States, Fr Ed Brady, managed to convert me to the way of peace. He taught a course on justice and peace to the seminarians in theology so we would understand how to achieve peace through reconciliation. But I didn’t like the course because I thought reconciliation made us look weak. I told him the course did not belong in our seminary and that he should just leave.

“He knew that teaching reconciliation to victims of violence was not easy. One day he came in with me on his mind. ‘I have a question for you. Would you be happy if all the mothers of two-month-old babies were killed right now so that their children could join you in your sorrow?’ That changed me. I replied: ‘No, Father, I could not agree to that. I would not want another child to experience what I did because his or her mother was lost to violence.’ This is when I began to work for peace and reconciliation.”

As for why he decided to become a priest in the first place, “It was because of my grandmother, who always taught me the importance of prayer, morning and night especially. She always took me to church. When my older sister became a Comboni Sister, I began to feel the call of Jesus. We also had a wonderful parish priest who was down to earth and could talk so well to children. I loved the way he related to people. So, I wrote to the archbishop and started the journey.”

We talked about South Sudan’s journey since independence in 2011 and the reasons for the continuing unrest. Bishop Kussala admits: “The reality is that we did not know how to run a country. Ninety-eight per cent of the country is illiterate. It is not easy to build a country and we find ourselves in the midst of political difficulties.”

He continued: “In 1956, the colonisers handed the government of Sudan to the northerners. They had already identified southerners as ‘different’ people and treated them differently. I don’t know for sure the reason why the colonisers did not insist on development in what is now South Sudan, but this is what has led to a lack of education and development of infrastructure in the south.

“Our people are really poor. They need education and development, but especially education, to transform the community. We lack contractors to build good housing; we have to hire them from outside the country for quality work.

“We need teachers. We have to hire teachers from East Africa, Kenya and Uganda, and this is very expensive. Even to write letters using a computer, we have to hire people. We need the transfer of skills from countries like Britain and the US, even to do the most simple things like basic agricultural practices to improve food and care for animals – and to create a working class. This is the answer to peace: education, development and work.”

Another activity the Church of South Sudan participates in is the rehabilitation of child soldiers. Between 2015 and 2018, a huge number of young people went to the bush to fight with different groups in this conflict, lured there with the promise of $100 each.

“I called on all the faith communities, including Muslims, and the government, to stand between the bush and these young boys,” the bishop recalled. “We went out to them and three different times we were forced to our knees at gunpoint by boys with guns. At the end of our efforts, we brought out about 10,000 armed young men and child soldiers from the bush. We had to convince them that they did not need the guns.

“Then with the help of the UN, we convinced them to put down their guns. We then gave them a school uniform, books and a copy book. We have a rehabilitation programme for them, but the biggest hurdle is to reconcile them with their families, to overcome the stigma of being a ‘bush child’, or child soldier. Teachers must be trained to include these children with all the students and not refer to them as ‘bush children’.

“It is the same with the girls, the child mothers. They don’t want to stay in the bush. We brought out many child mothers, but we need a proper centre where there can be healing of trauma. We also need a centre for child protection, and to teach child protection because there is child abuse too. No one wants to believe it, but it exists, and it must be addressed.”

Bishop Kussala has advanced degrees in bioethics, government, politics and international relations and a doctorate in moral theology. He has written four books, the latest entitled Reconciliation, Healing and Peace in South Sudan. I asked him what the steps were for a way forward.

“First of all we need ongoing training and formation of political leaders. We need to be close to them. As a people we need to learn from other countries, but we do not need a watchdog or to be spoken to with harsh words. We need collaboration, even with Sudan’s former colonial powers, to help South Sudan to stand on its own feet.

“Secondly, as a Church, it is our responsibility to educate people about the importance of peace, about their human dignity and human rights, and about peace-making. We need this in order to come out of decades of the trauma of violence. After these eight years of struggle to become a nation, we are all traumatised. It is time to build our identity.

“Thirdly, we need development. There is no peace without development that involves youth, women, the elders, everyone as collaborators. We need people to come in and assist us, accompany us to move forward.

“Finally, the international community, especially those countries that border South Sudan: Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic. These countries all bear responsibility for peace in South Sudan. They should not sit by and watch the confusion in South Sudan and profit from it, through gun trafficking to requiring us to buy goods and services from them without investing in South Sudan’s development for autonomy. We are a people that has never known anything other than war and conflict. We need peaceful neighbours who support our peace.”

The Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference is developing a pastoral plan that includes both Sudan and South Sudan. It will consist in a catechesis that helps people live according to their Catholic faith, programmes to form the pastoral identity of priests, religious and catechists, so that they can have an influence in their countries to continue the work of peace.

So far, the bishops’ conference has no website, but the bishops are working towards an online presence. Because there are few roads, families stay in touch by phone. The local church sends out daily messages via mobile phones, “about peace, reconciliation and spirituality”.

“We have a radio station that we use for prayers, for the Angelus, the rosary,” the bishop said. “The youth like music and the elderly like prayers. We also use the radio to share information, to read pastoral letters and messages from the Holy Father, for catechesis, and to talk about the social teaching of the Church. Every day there is a piece on Catholic social teaching that we translate into various local languages to make people aware of their own rights and responsibilities, their human dignity. Sometimes the government questions Catholic social teaching but we insist that the people have to know their rights.”

Bishop Kussala explained that the bishops’ conference works in a unique way. “We belong to two countries but one Church. We respond to the pastoral needs of each country depending on the perspective of each country. The conference has one secretary general and two deputies, one for each country. Our seminary and pastoral centre is for both countries. Sudan is predominately Muslim and South Sudan is mainly Christian, and both countries are marked by war. Thus, working together is essential.”

Bishop Kussala also spoke with gratitude about the influence of Jesuits who have been part of education in both countries for decades. Besides being professors at the Catholic university, they have opened a centre for the renewal of agriculture in a community that is livestock-based, with a teachers’ training school attached.

He also thanked the Daughters of St Paul who are helping to create a culture of reading in the country through their bookshop in Juba (the nation’s first).

As for the role of women in South Sudan, Bishop Kussala says that without them the country will go nowhere. “The government plans to give 70 per cent of job opportunities to men and 30 per cent to women but I say that job opportunities must be open equally to both men and women.”

With a promise of grateful prayer, Bishop Kussala described the reason for his visit to the United States as the representative of the Sudan Relief Fund. “I am here to ring the bell, to ask the people of the United States to come to the aid of South Sudan in a stronger way: diplomatically, politically and socially. South Sudan would not have been born if the United States and other European countries had not been close to us. When we achieved independence, they all thought the job was done and they gave up what they were doing to ensure peace. Then came the war. These countries saw this, didn’t like it, and rather than assist us they relaxed their diplomatic efforts.

“The formation of a new government of national unity is happening now. Its success is crucial to the peaceful stability of South Sudan. We want the United States to come closer, not in a forceful way, but as father, mother, a patron and friend of the people of South Sudan, to continue the material development of the region. To mitigate conflict, we need development. There are so many idle young people who are available to work for development initiatives. So this is why I am here. To ring that bell. Please come; don’t leave us alone. Don’t abandon us.”

Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP, is the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. The Sudan Relief Fund is the Catholic Herald’s Advent charity. To donate, please visit sdnrlf.com