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South Sudan. Between tenderness and testimony.

A Comboni missionary living in South Sudan, a conflict-torn country, talks to us about the importance of the signs of mercy during this Jubilee Year.

Under the shade of a tree in the woods, fifty catechists are listening carefully to Father Jose Javier Parladé, a Comboni missionary, who has left Yirol, the parochial center in South Sudan, to temporarily move  to Billing, a few kilometers west, where he will be running a 10 day training course for catechists intende- to support Christian communities, who, by now, have become accustomed to living in a state of permanent war. “I’ve been here 45 years – says the73 year-old Spanish missionary – and I have seen intermittent conflicts. When a war ended another one broke out.

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This has generated enormous wounds in the population and, little by little, violence has pervaded their minds and revenge has become a quite natural response. Facing this trend with gestures of mercy is not easy”.
Mercy is the word that comes spontaneously from the heart of  Father Pariadé and it is the theme of the Jubilee. Pope Francis wrote: ‘It is indeed my wish that the Jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened and thus testimony to it be ever more effective’.

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Tenderness and testimony is what the missionaries want to bring to this land of suffering. Despite the fact that the armed conflict has become a chronic disease, which seems to bury the future of South Sudan, José Javier Parladé does not give up. “It is true”, he admits, “that when one experiences war for the first time, he rebels until the moment he gets disillusioned and exhausted, since one cannot understand the reason for such suffering. But as faith slowly heals the wounds generated by this fratricidal war, one as a missionary gets committed to all  those people affected by the conflict”.
Although international media describe South Sudan’s civil war as having begun as a political power-struggle between factions loyal to the President, of the Dinka ethnic group, and those aligned with his former Vice President, of the Nuer ethnic group, the depiction of this conflict, in more than one occasion, has been simplified in terms of inter-ethnic clashes. As a matter of fact, Dinka and Nuer are two different ethnic groups, who are pre-eminently pastoral, that have been fighting for ages for cattle ownership and for the right to the best pastures. However, reducing this secular war to ethnic clashes between two peoples who have suffered so much and need reconciliation, is unfair.

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Despite all the suffering, Father Pariadé acknowledges that there are signs of hope. “Recently I was informed that a group of soldiers had crossed the Nile, stolen the cattle from a village and killed eight livestock guardians. A few days later, dozens of exiles from the same tribe as the invading soldiers arrived at the same village. As soon as I heard that, I drove fast to reach them in order to provide them with a shelter before the people of the village would attack them as a consequence of what the soldiers of their tribe had done few days earlier, but to my great surprise, when I arrived I saw that all the exiles had been welcomed in spite of the tragic events that had  occurred a few days earlier”.

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Although Yirol, has not been the epicenter of the fighting, the missionary says that “inside the mission one can feel the tension”. Jose Javier Parlade is in charge of the parish which consists of four priests and a brother. The priests are responsible for the pastoral work of the 54 chapels of the parish, while the brother runs the several schools where over 5,000 children in the region are provided with a decent education: “We live across the Nile, this makes us suffer the consequences of the conflict peripherally. For example, our lands are becoming hosting areas for refugees, the exodus occurred overnight, we suddenly found thousands of people under the forest trees, with no blankets and no food. “Father Parladé finds the face of Merciful Jesus in the faces of those people: “I cannot forget a woman whom we met few days ago: she told me she had escaped holding the hands of two of her children, while her husband was with the other two of their children, when all of a sudden she could not see the three of them anymore. To date she has not found them yet. Furthermore, while she was escaping, she was shot in her face by the guerrilla and only the cries of her children gave her the strength to get up and come to us with the bullet still inside her”. (S.L.)

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