BEATRICE MATEGWA & MACH SAMUEL
Grasping their bibles, hymn-books and tightly clutching onto their crosses, over 6,000 congegrants prayed, sang, and danced. They had gathered at the Zion Episcopal Church of South Sudan: to give thanks for the signing of the revitalised peace agreement, and to pray that its implementation goes on without any “obstruction”.
Some wept in song and prayer. They listened, as preacher after preacher called for peace to reign countrywide, and for returnees to resettle in areas which have been abandoned for years because of conflict. They have seen death, mass displacement, and retarded growth.
Most walked close to four hours across deserted grassland, covering up to 20 kilometres to get to the prayers and had to return home the same way.
“We want peace,” said Mariam Akul. With her friends, she had left Bor town at 4:00am to catch the 8:00am prayers in Pakeu. “We don’t want to fight because we are brothers and sisters. We need peace, we need love, that is why we came together,” she said.
The marathon seven-hour prayer attracted all: the young, the old, women and men.
All were wary of one reality: the recent peace agreement has not been endorsed by all warring parties.
“For anybody who has not signed, the government is determined and all the parties are determined to persuade them to join us in the signing [and] the implementation of the agreement,” said the country’s Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth, taking advantage of the weekend-long prayers to extend an olive branch to the peace deal’s non-signatories:
“So, we are ready our doors are open,” the minister went on. “The doors of the agreement are not closed. They are opened, for anybody who wants to join the process, will be very welcome,” he concluded.
A universal “amen” echoed through the church pews, with every sermon and prayer that prompted animated responses.
“It is very important we ask God here to help us,” said Nathaniel Garang Anyieth, Retired 1st Bishop of the Bor Diocese of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan. “We hope this peace is good peace [that] it will be very good for us, because we have faith in God, that is why we are here,” he said, underlining the importance of divine intervention, aware that a past peace agreement did not hold.
“You have seen these people,” the bishop went on. “These are the people who need peace, and peace comes within the people. Peace doesn’t come outside, it comes within the people. So, we are very happy to be here because we hope God will help us,” he said.
In South Sudan to protect civilians and work with its people to build durable peace, UNMISS, the United Nations Mission in the country was at the prayers, too, represented by the Jonglei area Head of Field Office, Deborah Schein.
Speaking from the pulpit located in the middle of the church, she said, “The people are crying for peace today…peace needs to be brought to the people, and their voices need to be heard.”
“A peace agreement has been signed, and it is now time to make peace a reality,” she added.
In an interview at the end of prayers Schein said: “It is very encouraging to be here today, and hear the congregation pray for peace,” adding “this is the message we want to see, as UNMISS, spread throughout all of greater Jonglei, and all of South Sudan.”
“We want peace for our neighbours, we want peace for the whole of South Sudan, so that we can start development,” said Jonglei Governor Philip Aguer, who considers the Church’s important role for passing messages of peace, as he expressed value for divine endorsement of the peace agreement.
“We want our people to return – you can see bush around, all these bushes were homes, but because of war, nobody is here [or] there. Now we wanted peace so that the displaced can come back from Guolyar, Mingkaman, from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and the diaspora, that is why we want God to help us in making this peace lasting,” said Aguer.
Once home to about 30,000 people, Pakeu area remains largely deserted. Driving through the area, currently needs armed escort, and vehicles need to travel in convoys. Overgrown with bushes, roads remain undeveloped making travel longer, and impossible during the rains.
At a separate service on Sunday in Bor town, the message of peace and peaceful coexistence was reverberated through the loud speakers, as the cleric marked the eleventh anniversary of his priesthood.
“Let us work always for peace, and let us discourage the things that separate people, the things that disqualify people not to live together, let us discourage them,” said Father Edward Deng, at Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church, adding, “let us work together for building ourselves.”
At this congregation, there were those for whom peace messages could not be overemphasized: displaced civilians who journeyed from the UN protection site in Bor, where thousands continue to live away from their homes since the outbreak of war.