By Paul Jeffrey, Catholic News Service
KURON, South Sudan (CNS) – In a country at war, this is a region at peace, thanks to a retired South Sudanese Catholic bishop who championed friendship between those who once saw each other as enemies.
During the civil war between the South Sudanese and the government of Khartoum, Sudan, Bishop Paride Taban was Bishop of Torit, working to keep people alive amid a decades-long struggle. Although imprisoned and beaten by Sudan People’s Liberation Army rebels, he held no grudges and worked to foster reconciliation when rebels seized power following a historic peace deal from 2005.
But Bishop Taban knew that the political agreements signed by politicians were not going to make much difference on the ground, especially among the nomadic herders in his diocese who saw other tribes as enemies, competitors for the only real value in the arid landscape: livestock. . The centuries-old tradition of cattle rustling, essentially a violent sport that allowed young men to get the cows they needed to buy themselves a wife, had been transformed by the addition of high-powered weapons inherited from the war. . What had once caused only occasional spear wounds now frequently turned into a massacre.
In 2004, Bishop Taban resigned as head of the Diocese of Torit. The following year, he founded the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, where, as bishop, he had a bridge built over a river that was impassable during the rainy season. While the bridge opened up transportation to a neglected region of the country, it posed a dilemma.
“This bridge could be a blessing or a curse,” Bishop Taban, 86, told Catholic News Service. “Before the bridge, cattle rustling slowed down during the rainy season because people couldn’t cross the river. With the bridge, they could plunder during the rainy season. So we founded the Peace Village there to reconcile people who called themselves enemies instead of friends.
The Peace Village received nearly four square miles of land from the interim government. Bishop Taban opened a school and a vocational training center, believing that children who studied together were less likely to kill each other as they grew up. The village organized football matches between young people from warring tribes. He opened a clinic where the sick were cured, regardless of ethnicity or language.
“We asked the young people who were going on raids: ‘Is it like football or wrestling, just to see who is the winner?’ They said yes, but they also said they had to get the dowry. If the boys want to get married, they have to find the necessary cows. We told them they had to stop, and they said, “Give us an alternative. So we started vocational training. You can make a chair, you can weld something, you can build something and earn money and buy your own cattle. And we brought them to school,” Bishop Taban said. “We succeeded in preventing young people from massively looting cattle. There are still small-scale raids, but not many.
The Peace Village also got people talking. Peace committees were organized in each colony over a wide area in the southeast of the nascent country. Regular meetings provide an early warning system, identifying tensions before they lead to violence.
“The committees work hard,” said Albano Louis, a Toposa chief in Korokochom. “People share their grievances and we work hard to make life better. Instead of just carrying guns and being afraid, we deal with issues, like hunger, that affect people’s daily lives. We pray for peace, and we believe it will work. There is nothing better than peace.”
When talks break down and cattle raids take place, peace committee members work to recover the stolen animals, with the thieves often penalizing an equal number of animals. In an area where the national police rarely intervene, the Peace Village has essentially created its own local government.
The introduction of cell service in 2021, after years of lobbying by Bishop Taban, has made it easier for villagers and Peace Village staff to communicate, allowing them to communicate — and resolve disputes — much faster.
Although it enjoys international support, the Peace Village is a decidedly South Sudanese project. That makes it even more important for the country, says Jonas Halvorsen, a Norwegian Church aid official who has worked with the Peace Village for years.
“It’s a local project. It is a peaceful region of South Sudan where various ethnic groups coexist in peace thanks to a structure built by the South Sudanese themselves. It is an inspiration to the rest of the country,” he said.
The schools established by the Peace Village are at the heart of its mission, but getting children to attend them is difficult in pastoral communities, where children are part of a labor force that tends goats and cows and spends long hours scaring birds away from ripe fields. with sorghum. But Father Henry Gidudu, principal and chaplain of St. Thomas Primary School in Kuron, takes student ambassadors to remote villages where they persuade reluctant parents to let their children try school.
“We have children from the Toposa, Murle, Jie and other tribes, and they come here considering themselves enemies. Yet they soon come to see each other as friends, learning values that bring them closer together. At home, they emphasize revenge. In school we teach forgiveness,” he said.
Women are key agents of change in the Peace Village. Although they do not participate in cattle rustling, they can discourage it.
“The Bishop tells us that as women we have a responsibility to bring our children to school, and that we need to talk to our men to stop the violence and live in peace,” said Mary Logie, member of a women’s association. group in Kuron.
“The violence in our homes was worse before the Peace Village raised questions about gender-based violence. Before, when people wanted to marry a very young girl, the mother opposed it and her husband beat her. But that has changed. Now we can talk about these things, and there is no violence against women,” she said. “The girl can still get married, but not at such a young age as before.”
Logie says she had long discussions with her husband about cattle rustling.
“I tell him that I don’t want him to raid, but rather focus on our children to go to school. Since then, he no longer raids. The community calls him a coward. Yet I tell him that I love him because he is a coward. And I say he can’t raid because if he gets killed, who am I going to love?
Bishop Taban said Peace Village has tried to respect the culture of herders while striving to end the violence and improve the quality of their lives. He said he was guided by advice given by the Toposa when the first Catholic missionaries arrived in the area in 1935.
“The Toposa asked, ‘Why are you coming here?’ The missionaries replied, ‘We bring the word of God.’ They said they were free to do so, but there were two things they wouldn’t allow. “Don’t touch our animals. And don’t touch our women. They made it clear that if you want to be a friend of theirs, you will respect their animals and women. And they let us into their homes, as missionaries, without any suspicion, because we respect their wives and their animals,” the Bishop said.
Yet change can happen unexpectedly, Bishop Taban reported.
“One day they saw a plane landing on our airstrip and they saw a female pilot come out of it. What did they say ? A lady? Fly the plane? We said, “Yes, and with her salary she can buy 50 to 100 cows a month. They said, ‘Wow!’ And that’s how we started to educate girls. Because they realized that when educated, girls can earn money. And with this money, they can buy more cattle each month. Now we have over 50 girls in primary school and even more in secondary school,” he said.