I recently got back from a trip out to the edge of Western Equatoria near the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR). This is the area that has been terrorized by the LRA rebels for two years now. My friend Buck from the diocese of Virginia and I traveled together.
Ezo has long been in my thoughts and prayers. While the ECS has 7 dioceses that have been affected by the LRA, Ezo has been hit the hardest, and the longest. They are placed right at the border junction of Sudan, CAR, and DRC. The people on both sides of the border live in a remote area far from any of their centers of government. Though they have different nationalities, they are the same ethnic group, and share a common language and history. The LRA have been active in that area, flitting between the countries, and causing widespread panic and suffering. In the village of Ezo alone, 35 people have killed, 59 abducted, 3,000 refugees from DRC have come, and 25,600 people from the surrounding rural area have been displaced into the village. Many more have been displaced throughout the region, with well over 100,000 displaced all together. People who were successful farmers, who were able to provide for their families, are now hungry and suffering greatly from disease and poor living conditions, reduced to squatters in stick and tarp shacks, so close together there is no room to farm.
When people do try to return to their farms, they are targeted by the LRA. The LRA strategy seems to be that of maximum displacement. They leave an area for a time, and just when people begin to think it is safe, they strike again. They are not rebels by the normal definition. They have no political agenda of their own. They are terrorists in the extreme, who mutilate their victims, and capture children to force into their army. They are the worst kind of hired mercenaries imaginable. When we met with the county commissioner he said, “We do not mean to fight the LRA, we do not mean to fight anyone, but we are forced.” The Ugandan, Congolese and south Sudanese military forces have been trying to work together to stop they LRA but have not yet been successful.
The conditions in the refugee and IDP camps in Ezo are terrible. People have no space, and disease is spreading rapidly. In the refugee camp they bury at least one person a day. They showed us the growing makeshift graveyard. The week before our visit, the church lost two important women leaders to sudden illness, one quite young and one old. The entire church compound, the cathedral, the office, even the bishop and his wife have been displaced. The cathedral is meeting under a tent, and the bishop rents a small house in town, surrounded by other displaced people. It has been 3 months now since the last LRA attack on Ezo, and the people are hopeful, but they worry that the LRA will return at the time of the referendum (January).
Despite all that they are suffering the people of the diocese of Ezo continue to worship together and work together for a better future. Their compound, which they had to abandon nearly two years ago because of LRA attacks, they continue to maintain, to keep the rapidly growing forest from reclaiming. Church members go back to slash weeds, and maintain the buildings. The bishop took us there to show us the progress they have made. They even continue to work on the construction of their new brick cathedral, and construction of a new primary school. “We built the school with bricks in one hand and ammunition in the other,” the bishop said. Even under the threat of attack, the people continue working together, taking the risk, hoping and trusting that their efforts will make a difference.
The people were so happy to have Buck and I visit. It had been nearly two years since their last foreign visitor. They asked me to preach at the Sunday service. “We always ask our visitors to share the word of God with us.” I preached about the Kingdom of God, and about how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. There were presentations by four different choirs, one of which was a choir brought together just to compose a song for us. Buck and I were adorned with garlands of flowers around our necks, and greeted by each member of the congregation.
Later in the evening there was a presentation which included a short play by the Mother’s Union, speeches, songs, and dance. The Mother’s Union did a dance with grass skirts, and asked me to join them. I was given a grass skirt too, and we danced together. It was wonderful, a true outpouring of joy. They called me “Mama,” which I considered a great honor. And though we don’t speak the same language, their outstretched arms beaconing me to join them in the dance said it all.
I have been to all but one of the southern dioceses now, and I have seen so much displacement and suffering. Ezo, as I had long suspected, has the worst displacement, and the worst suffering. There is so little I can do to help the people of Ezo, or the people of South Sudan. The agriculture projects and training I’m working on require stability, and will take time. But sometimes it is enough to risk, to go, to be present with people in the time of their suffering, to bring them greetings and prayers from friends abroad they didn't know they had, to let them know they are not alone or forgotten.
The people of Ezo remind me yet again, that hope and love and laughter and life go on even amidst the most profound suffering. The bishop said, “Everything that has a beginning has an end.” This too shall pass. The peace-loving agriculturalists of Western Equatoria will one day return to their farms, and build their nation.
Please join me in praying for the dioceses affected by the LRA:
Diocese of Ezo, Bishop John Zawo
Diocese of Nzara, Bishop Sammuel Peni
Diocese of Yambio, Bishop Peter Munde
Diocese of Ibba, Bishop Wilson Kamani
Diocese of Maridi, Bishop Justin Badi
Diocese of Mundri, Bishop Bismark Avokaya
And those hosting the displaced:
Diocese of Yei, Bishop Hilary Luate
Diocese of Lainya, Bishop Peter Amidi