|Interview to Maria Carmen Ocón, vice-president of Solidarity with south Sudan
María del Carmen Ocón is the vice-president of Solidarity with South Sudan, an international NGO that has been working in South Sudan since 2008 to promote the construction of a just and peaceful society in a country that was engulfed in a bloody civil war as soon as it was born. Moreover, this White Sister knows the Democratic Republic of Congo well, where, she says, there are savagely inhumane situations due to the greed caused by its natural wealth. Francis has been forced to delay his visit to both countries, but they are still waiting for him, today more than ever, with open arms.
– Maria del Carmen, what is your experience in Africa?
– I came to Africa in 1992, 30 years ago. I belong to the congregation of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa, known as the White Sisters. I have worked in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Kenya, which was my first assignment. Then, through my 11 years of service in the General Council, I have had the opportunity to visit almost all the countries where we are, of which there are 14. Since 2011, through this inter-congregational reality that is Solidarity and its governance structure in Rome, I have been working as a member of the board of directors. I am now vice-president of Solidarity.
-How is the situation in South Sudan now after the implementation of the peace agreement signed in 2018?
-The instability is still very much ongoing. The situation has improved, but there is still a lot of violence. People still have no real sense of peace and tranquillity. In fact, most of the refugees and displaced people in Uganda have not returned because they don’t have the courage to go back. From my point of view, everything in general has got a bit worse in Africa because of the economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus and now with the war in Ukraine which is blocking food supplies and it is being felt.
-How does Solidarity help to alleviate some of this suffering?
-From the beginning, the presence of this reality became a sign that interethnic coexistence and peace is possible. Because we offer training projects, such as courses to become teachers, health workers or pastoral agents, in which students from all over the country and from different ethnic groups take part. They live together for 2 to 3 years and do so in harmony. For me, this shows that peace and reconciliation is possible and sought after by all means, despite the divisions that may have been fostered. People want it, desire it and need it.
Because the war broke out as a result of an internal power struggle between the two political leaders. Salva Kiir and Riek Machar stirred up one ethnic group against another, and the only thing they succeeded in doing was to make the poor and simple people pay for their confrontation.
-Has the Pope’s constant attention to this country, which has been embroiled in civil war almost since its birth, made an impact?
-The Pope’s initiatives for South Sudan have had a great impact worldwide. A clear example is when he invited both political leaders and the other members of the unity government to Santa Marta for a prayer retreat. It was then that he made that very prophetic and surprising gesture of kneeling down and kissing their feet in order to bring peace and reconciliation. I think that had an impact on them as well because that is where the peace agreement came from.
-When it happens, what can be left in this town from Francis’ visit?
-You can no longer ignore the deep desires of all these people, of so many young people who see no future in this dynamic of violence and instability. Therefore, what is expected of this visit, when it can be carried out, is that it will promote and consolidate this peace process.
The people want and need peace. As the Bishop of Tombura-Yambio, Mgr Hiiboro, has expressed, we cling to the hope that a papal visit can precipitate a historic turnaround, as was the case with national reconciliation in Mozambique and the visit of John Paul II. We hope that this visit to South Sudan can reconcile everyone, that it can put the war behind them and bring peace to them forever. So it would not be the first time in the history of Africa that this has happened. Let us hope that the visit can make a difference for the leaders of these countries to work for peace, especially those of South Sudan.
-South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are two of the ten poorest countries in the world.
-And at the same time they have so much potential. It is said that South Sudan could be the breadbasket of the whole of Africa and part of the world because it has a huge area of fertile arable land. The misfortune of the Democratic Republic of Congo is precisely that it is rich in resources such as coltan. If it were poor it would go unnoticed like Tanzania, a poor country where people live with scarcity, but at least without conflict.
-According to UNHCR, more than four million South Sudanese have been displaced across the region and within their own country in one of the largest humanitarian crises in Africa. How does the Church respond to a challenge of such dimensions?
-The White Sisters have opened a community in the northern part of Uganda. The White Fathers and we have gone there to establish a community to assist the one million refugees in various refugee camps in that region, in the diocese of Arua. The Ugandan government opened its doors to welcome them. It gave a plot of land to each family where they have been able to build a little house and have a little vegetable garden. It is a very different style from what we are used to, that of not allowing refugees to enter or, if they do enter, detaining them in subhuman conditions. This community has been here for a year now. The sisters are learning the language of the local people and of the refugees, which, fortunately, is the same, even though they are from two different countries. For the time being, they accompany and listen to the refugees to find out about the needs of the people. There are many NGOs providing aid, but there was no pastoral presence with these people. We didn’t want to go in with a closed project, but we wanted to listen to the people first, understand what they need and try to offer it to them.
-Although he has had to delay the trip for health reasons, it is clear that the Holy Father wishes to travel to the country because he has had it constantly in his thoughts during all these years. How do you value this choice of the Pope to go to such “invisible” places as this country?
-I think it is consistent with what the Pope is demonstrating through his travels: he has chosen to go to the peripheries, to marginalised countries. In Africa, South Sudan is one of the places where people suffer the most and, in that sense, it fits in perfectly with his logic that he wants to visit it because it means going there where people suffer the most, where nobody dares to go and where they seem to live as untouchables. And so it draws attention to them, it makes that people who were almost invisible to the world at least visible for two or three days. That is also an important contribution. Your visit will, at least for two days, make the media and us focus on that reality. For many of those who did not know what is happening in South Sudan, something will remain.
-You tell me that the Pope goes where no one wants to go, but it is precisely in those places that the missionaries are.
-We are also invisible unless a journalist remembers us.
-But Francis does remember his missionaries.
-When I met the Pope in person at an audience through the congregation, he encouraged me to continue in the mission. He said to me: “Keep carrying the Good News wherever it is needed.” I believe that what the Pope wants from us missionaries is that we continue to be witnesses of the Good News of Christ precisely close to the people who suffer, close to the poor. That is why, perhaps, we missionaries have a place in his heart. Because we try to accompany the people in their suffering, in their day-to-day life, even if nobody remembers us, which, obviously, we do not do for publicity. The fact that the Pope keeps us in mind is also a message of hope for us, because it is not easy to keep going in situations or countries where you dedicate a lifetime or many years and it seems that everything is being destroyed. That something you build on one side is destroyed on the other. You have to have the strength of faith.
-You saw this strength of faith a few days ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are eagerly preparing for the visit.
-In the churches, people are praying morning, noon and night for the visit, that it will go well and that it will leave a message of hope, that it will continue to be a commitment to peace and reconciliation. There is great enthusiasm and fervour. The bishops have prepared a prayer that everyone prays. It is prayed at the end of the mass, in the communities. The desire to receive the Pope is palpable.
-The Democratic Republic of Congo has suffered two terrible wars. What impact have they left on the Congolese people?
-There have been two wars, but the violence continues. In the Kivu region there are still internally displaced people and the killings are constant. The Holy Father will not visit this very hot zone where the militias perpetrate these massacres to take over all the land and the mines. In Goma, for example, there are centres for women victims of this scourge of sexual violence used as a weapon of war. The war is over, but that doesn’t mean the violence is over and nobody mediates or makes peace because everyone is fighting for resources. When I was in Mozambique I saw the consequences of the war. The conflict left thousands of people mutilated by mines and families destroyed because they had many dead; it left orphans, widows, grandmothers with grandchildren to take care of… Rebuilding those broken relationships was difficult because it was a civil war that pitted brothers against brothers. It takes a long time to iron out those differences and rebuild trust.
-What will be the most difficult place for the Pope on this trip?
-The most problematic area is Goma. Not long ago there was a new attack perpetrated by the M23 group, which seems to have come from Rwanda. In fact, the border with Rwanda was closed. On the last day of my visit, we were able to go a little further out of the city to a parish where food was being distributed to all those displaced by this incursion. These are scenes that stay with you because, although we have witnessed situations of great suffering, fortunately we are not used to it. It is impossible not to be moved when you see these people who, although they had little, had their homes and their land, and now they were there, in a wasteland, with nothing. On the other side, people displaced by the eruption of the volcano in May last year were living in plastic tents. These are situations that do not leave you indifferent.
-Do China and Russia dominate Africa?
-I think we fall short of blaming Russia and China, because neither Europe, nor the US, nor the Arab countries are blameless. This last time I travelled to the region, I was on the plane with an Italian man with whom I struck up a conversation. I asked him why he was going to the DRC and he replied that he was going to the country because he was involved in gold mines. The big economies are not out of it either. The militias are made up of mercenaries and the only thing that matters is money and exploiting without regard for anything or anyone. I am not against exploiting resources, but it could be done in a way that puts human dignity first. However, this is not the case. The people in this country do not matter. They have no regard for human beings. It does not matter if they are killed, if they are exploited, if they are children or if they are women. Not to mention the ecological problem caused by this unrestrained exploitation, such as the constant displacement of land in Kivu or the pollution of the water. I have been in mines in Zambia and the workers made a decent living there. They had their salary and their house. I wonder why it is not possible to build a mine and do it like that in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why does everything have to be this wild. Not even in the animal world is there a predator as savage as the human being.
-How has the area changed?
-When we were in Goma, it was impossible for us to visit certain places further away from the city because, in addition, express kidnappings are now rampant. We were afraid and cautious not to take any risks. Apparently this is our daily bread in the region. It is a very unstable area. However, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a country of contrasts. I hadn’t been there for three years and it seemed to me that Goma has grown a lot. You can see huge houses. I didn’t see such contrasts in Africa 20 years ago. Now it is the nouveau riche Africans who are building these houses. When you ask whose houses they are, the answer is that the owners are in the mining business. I would say that this inequality is much more inhumane than it was before. Africa is where the world throws away what it no longer wants and takes what it needs. I think this happens more blatantly today, with less scruples.
You can read the original article HERE
(Credits to Revista Ecclesia)
26 July 2022
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