Paride Taban won the 2013 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize for his work at the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, in the east of South Sudan, which he founded. A powerful example of peace and reconciliation.
On a hilltop between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv there is a peculiar community called Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salaam (The Oasis of Peace). This community – with its cooperative, school, farms, and other services – comprises roughly 50 families of Jewish and Palestinian origin who have been living peacefully despite the fierce conflict between Jews and Arabs. This is an open place for anybody from any religious or social background; here, barriers of misunderstanding, prejudices, and hatred are overcome by means of tolerance, cooperative work, education, respect, and mutual appreciation.
Bishop Paride Taban – then Bishop of Torit in Southen Sudan – visited this community in 1993 and in 1999. The vision of this one family made of different people, some outright foes whose governments were involved in a bloody confrontation, reminded the Sudanese Bishop of the power of love, respect, and mutual acceptance in healing the wounds of war and hatred. He said, “I went to the Holy Land looking for a well-deserved rest after having toiled for years in another ferocious conflict in my home country. Meeting this Oasis of Peace and discovering its way of life was a milestone. The testimony of peaceful coexistence and respect got me thinking and I resolved to set up an analogous community in Sudan upon retirement.”
After long years of pastoral work, various responsibilities (founder and chairman of the New Sudan Council of Churches) and involvement in peacemaking, Bishop Paride Taban applied early for his retirement. Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation in 2004. However, the project inspired by the Jewish-Arab community already began taking shape in 2003. He smiled and said, “Yes, my 20th anniversary as Bishop of Torit.”
After having considered different venues, Monsignor Taban decided to start a farm near the Kuron River. This stream flows very close to the Ethiopian border and around it are different tribes (Toposa, Jie, Murle, Kachipo, Buya, Nyanga tom, etc.) fighting for the possession of cattle. Bishop Taban, looking at history, commented, “Cattle rustling goes back to the ancient traditions of the pastoralist tribes living along the Rift Valley. According to their old tales, when God created the world, he entrusted each tribe with a different ‘field of work’. He gave rivers to some, fields to others, and cattle to pastoralists. Therefore, all the cattle they find belongs to them. Cattle belonging to other tribes (even if related) must return to their original owners ‘by Divine decree.’ Cattle-raiding was also a ‘rite of passage’ proving a youth’s bravery and strength and making them adults in the sight of the tribe.”
“Due to the nature of the weapons used (spears, arrows, etc.) – the bishop continued – cattle-rustling in the past was a harmless practice compared to today. Each year hundreds of young men succumb to the destructive power of the ubiquitous AK-47, the most effective and affordable weapon in the region.”
According to Bishop Taban, this ruthless custom that takes the lives of so many people will only be overcome by close and peaceful coexistence. New members of each tribe traditionally live without interacting with other groups; prejudices and even hatred builds up along the years. Only if the young can live, learn, play, and grow together, a new and more peaceful society with new values might arise.
“The vision of The Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron is to set up an oasis of peace where people of diverse tribes, religious beliefs, cultures, and communities live together in harmony and dignity. The goal of the Peace Village is to achieve peace and reconciliation between warring communities for them to engage in sustainable development, for development is peace. The main objective of setting up the Peace Village is peace building through education, health services, food security, pastoral and spiritual care, and community participation in keeping law and order.”
In this context, Monsignor Taban decided to set up a centre offering different services: firstly the primary school, where all children can benefit from proper education – in particular girls. No girl from the local tribes has ever reached university studies. The school provides the ideal atmosphere for mutual trust and knowledge beyond ethnic barriers or prejudices. It also addresses the root-causes of violence associated with cattle.
The dispensary provides essential health care to communities that have never seen a medical doctor or a nurse and whose health is badly affected by lack of proper care, many waterborne diseases, and general ignorance about basic sanitation and hygiene practices.
The meeting centre is a place for peace building activities. It brings together chiefs and representatives of different tribal groups to hold meetings or discuss issues related to their lifestyle. Youths engage in sporting competitions to replace violent confrontation.
Finally, the agricultural project aims at empowering local tribes to produce their own food. This makes their livelihood less dependent on cattle, a source of rivalry and armed confrontation. So far, this initiative has been very successful. People who come to the Peace Village have the opportunity of learning basic agricultural techniques, getting to know new crop varieties, buying seeds, or gaining extra knowledge on how to start their own agricultural venture.
Monsignor Paride said, “Eight years ago, the Toposa, Nyangatom, Kachipo, Jie, Koroma, and Murle tribes called one another nyemoit in the local dialect – enemy. Now they coexist and call one another lepai – friend. This experience is influencing the area of about 200 square kilometres where there is no police or government agency to enforce law and order.”
Finally, he said, “I have seen many changes since we started. There are so many people now, so many children – in the beginning there was nobody. Another big change is that people have started practising agriculture. Before they would wander up and down, but now they have learned new ideas and are implementing best agricultural practices. We must be self-reliant so the community can cater to itself without external support. Kuron Peace Village – dedicated to the Holy Trinity as the perfect icon of community – is a powerful seed of reconciliation and peace for Southern Sudan.”
Last march, Bishop Taban was awarded the Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize. The prize is named after the Brazilian special UN envoy in Iraq, killed in a bombing in Baghdad in 2003. The prize is awarded each year to an individual, community, or institution who has made an exceptional contribution to reconciliate communities or groups in conflict, and whose example can be duplicated elsewhere. “The fact that this village is an example of reconciliation and peace encourages other communities to follow a similar approach in other areas of conflict in South Sudan and beyond,” said Laurent Vieira de Mello, president of the prize foundation and eldest son of the late Sergio Vieira de Mello.