South Sudan. Sowing peace amid the violence.
A young man is killed. The family members arrange the vendetta. The blood of the culture seems to be thicker than the waters of Baptism. Reflections of a missionary who spent fifty years in Africa.
It is just a month since the life of my friend James was snuffed out, the umpteenth life cut short by hatred, by violence and by vendetta in this country of South Sudan that yearns and hopes for the peace that still seems far from being achieved. I was in my hut one evening, at about 19:00, writing a letter, when I heard a loud pistol shot that seemed to shake the very ground a few dozen paces from the church.
We soon realised that something horrible had happened and we silently waited to hear what was going on. Just a minute had passed when we heard the desperate cries of people, mostly women weeping for their son, his body lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The people continued their weeping and wailing while the dead body of James, a young man of 29, recently married and with a young child, was wrapped in a sheet and taken to the house of his father where, according to tradition, it was immediately buried. Torrential rain fell that night, a night of tears and anguish.
The following day, the roads are deserted and the few people going to the market walk in silence, No one speaks to anyone else and no one knows what will happen now. The schools are closed. The house of James’ father is surrounded by soldiers to provide security in the area. On the morning of the following day, together with a catechist, I go to visit James’ father, John, at home. The house is full of crying women wanting to console one another. James’ father is in bed, disconsolate. James was his only son who had a job, the only one who could help to buy food and support the family and now he is no longer with us. We try to bring some hope amid the violence through firm faith in the God of life who alone can give us the strength to struggle and sow peace where there is conflict.
The soldiers want me to go to a nearby village as James’ family want to take revenge immediately. Vendetta is an all-too-common practice in Nuer culture. “If someone, does you wrong and you do not take revenge, you are not a real man”, they say in these parts. We listen to the family members. Their hearts are full of sadness and anger and they are armed to the teeth. I am struck by the sight of a young man of 25 with a Rosary around his neck and a rifle in his hands: I will never forget that young man. One of James’ uncles says they have to hit the family of the assassin immediately, in cold blood. The others do not agree. They say they will teach their children from childhood and when they grow up one of them will kill one of the sons of the one who killed James. The desire for vendetta is handed down from generation to generation. Faith in Jesus is obscured by the culture of revenge; the blood of the culture is thicker than the waters of Baptism.
We preach peace with all our hearts and all our strength; that peace that only Jesus can give us. At James’ funeral, I shout out the Gospel of forgiveness and justice. There is no place whatever for ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’! We must never take the law into our own hands, never take up a rifle to kill but always leave room for the local authorities to bring about justice. Vendetta brings nothing good but simply increases sorrow and suffering. In this country that has just celebrated its ten years of independence, we are hoping for a better future, for the good of our people, for a real life for our children and young people. We are not alone. We are convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is with us, working for us and we ask that his Spirit may transform and convert the hearts of the warlords. Without Jesus, it would not be possible to live in this situation. It is only with Jesus that a new world is possible.
Father Mario Pellegrino