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Fr. Alois in Sudan and South Sudan. Amidst violence and poverty, women’s courage and children’s joy

"When we look at the peoples of South Sudan, experiencing serious difficulties, when we look at them in the eye, all barriers fall, our hearts open up and we become more human. And by paradox, in this encounter we are being donated a joy.” Fr. Alois shared an account of his two-week journey in Sudan and South Sudan with SIR

The generosity of so many people working on the ground, the courage of the women, the contagious joy of the children, the anticipation of Pope’s Francis’ visit. The prior of the Taize Community, Father Alois, paid a two-week visit to Sudan and South Sudan “to learn more about the situation in these two Countries, to meet local populations and pray with and for them, the most severely tried peoples of our time.” The news was released by the community, specifying that the prior paid a one-week visit to Juba and Rumbek in South Sudan followed by a week in Khartum, capital of Sudan. SIR contacted Fr Alois by phone upon his return to France.

Which situation did you find in South Sudan? South Sudan is going through a period of great difficulty that is causing widespread pessimism.

There is no hope anymore.

The Country is affected by skyrocketing inflation, people have stopped receiving their salaries for several months, while violence increases and spreads throughout every group inside the Country, amidst high circulation of weapons. But I have also witnessed the major, joint effort of NGOs and of the Churches with respect to education, solidarity, care of the sick, closeness to those who are excluded. Their presence is a sign of hope.

Which aspect impressed you the most during these days? I was deeply impressed by the courage and by the spirit of perseverance of the women in this Country. Mothers, most of them very young, carry on their shoulders most of the suffering caused by violence.

But they don’t lose hope, they persevere with courage.

They walk for miles to sell items in the open markets, always carrying their children in goatskin carriers. I remember a woman, in one of the refugee camps we visited, who spoke about her efforts as mediator of reconciliation and peace, around a water collection site. People are faced with water shortage and women pool efforts to ensure equal distribution to everyone. These are signs of great courage carried out among the poor.

In the light of this experience, who are these women? Many of them are mothers who manage to stand on their two feet despite the difficulties.

They are aware that they cannot make long-term plans. They live, day by day, taking care of others.

Among the refugees hosted in UN camps we met mothers with their children and with other children. In many cases the women had brought 10-12 children with them, since along the way they took care of those who had lost their own parents. Families are forced to flee in a hurry and it often happens that parents lose their children. And mothers with insufficient means for themselves and for their children have no hesitation in taking care of other children too. It comes natural to them. I saw the great inner strength of these women! I am full of admiration for them.

What about the children?
Wherever there are children there is joy. There is joy even when they have the necessary minimum, as in the case of UN refugee camps. In the schools we have visited the children have all welcomed us with the joy of receiving a visit.

Being touched by the joy of these children is deeply moving.

They are certainly not aware that the future that lies ahead of them will be very difficult. One would want to preserve this joy, so that they may continue to experience this happiness also when they grow up. I am grateful for these moments of joy that I was given by these children.

The Pope recently announced his visit to South Sudan and Sudan together with Anglican bishop Justin Welby. Is the population looking forward to the visit? The people are waiting for the Pope, they are expecting his visit. It would be a great encouragement for them, it would make them feel that they are recognized and that their cries are being listened to. These people are often under the impression that their cries are unheard and if the Pope were able to make this visit it would give them great courage. They are looking forward to his visit.

When the Pope accepts to visit a Country he often comes across consolidated ecumenical visits. What kind of ecumenism have you seen in these two Countries? There is an efficient ecumenical Council that represents the Churches. This doesn’t always result in common initiatives in the area of education and humanitarian assistance, but I believe that this cooperation will grow increasingly stronger.

Today ecumenism is called to address the real problems of the poor.

Indeed, more progress needs to be made, so that the Churches may jointly convey their approach with an ecumenical approach.

You said that you will speak of this experience at the European meeting of young people scheduled to take place in Basel at the end of the year. What will you say to young people? 
I still haven’t prepared my speech. But I will focus on two aspects in particular. On the one side, I ask myself how this cry of suffering that comes from poverty and violence can be communicated and listened to, to make sure that people stop feeling that their cries fall on deaf ears, and to ensure that we relate and draw close to these situations. But I also wish to share my personal experience: when we make these visits, when we approach these situations, we grow in humanity. These experiences lead us to abandon our certainties, our feelings of superiority. They make us realize that sometimes in Europe we face false problems.

When we look at the peoples of South Sudan, experiencing situations of great difficulty, when we look them in the eye, all barriers fall, our hearts open up and we grow in humanity. By paradox, in this meeting we are enriched with the gift of a joy.

This spark of joy probably lasts a few instants, yet, it’s the joy of an encounter, of a new understanding. A true joy. There are two core themes: the cry of misery and violence that we need to listen to along with the experience of growing in humanity when we draw close to these situations. Today in Europe we need these meetings that make us more human, that help us overcome non-essential problems. Visits such as those in Sudan and South Sudan have stepped up my awareness of what is essential in life, of the fact that life is a precious gift, that we must be thankful for the gift of life and do everything possible to ensure a dignified life to all those who are suffering.

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