A diocese needs a bishop. In the beginning of March, a new bishop was finally installed in Torit, South Sudan, after the city had been without one for five years. Five years in which a lot has happened. Let's go back a bit in time.
September 2017. The renewed violence in Juba, which broke out less than a year after the first peace agreement to end the civil war, had quickly spread to the south of the country. Torit, southwest of Juba, was turned into a ghost town within a few weeks. Many people fled to the camps in Uganda or into the bush. The market was deserted and the roads into and out of town were impassable.
For months, people in Torit hardly dared to walk the streets anymore for fear of violence, committed both by armed individuals and groups, by people in or out of uniform. When I was there in the fall of 2017, it was still very quiet. Together with our partner, Father John Opi of the Diocese of Torit, I was there to evaluate how the projects were going, to go through some administrative matters, and to discuss what it would take to continue the work. He had arranged a hotel close to the airplane landing strip, with a high wall around it, where we could have meals so that we didn´t need to go outside much. In the car, he pointed out the places where people had been shot a few weeks earlier. Fortunately nothing happened during my visit and the situation has improved since then. But at that moment the desolation and silence were prominent.
Divisions and tensions
Back to the present, desolation and silence are far away in Torit. On Sunday, March 3, Father Stephen Ameyu was installed as the new bishop of the Diocese of Torit. The Diocese covers the former Eastern Equatoria, which has been divided into Torit State and Kapoeta State since 2015. The division was mandated by presidential decree and exacerbated the intercommunal violence over land and natural resources. It also led to new tensions over administrative boundaries and positions.
Delighted people everywhere
All this tension melted away briefly during the bishop’s installation. On Friday afternoon, the first dusty landcruisers entered Torit, along with crowded buses and trucks loaded with people. People from all parts of Eastern Equatoria came to see the installation of their new bishop, from Ikwotos, Magwi, Nimule, Lafon, Budi, Kapoeta, Narus, Kuron, but also farther afield -- from Juba, Uganda, Kenya. Priests and their parishioners, women's groups, youth, small and very large church choirs, traditional chiefs, state governors, bishops and even a number of representatives of the largest rebel movement. Some people were flown in by charter flight, others walked for days to be there. I walked with Father Opi in the dark, on the street, in the middle of the bustle of a convoy that had just arrived from Kapoeta State. We ran into people we knew the whole time, everyone was delighted. It was the first time since the outbreak of the civil war in 2013 that so many people had gathered together in one place. Father Opi beamed: "This is the true spirit of Eastern Equatoria!".
The installation itself went as well as expected: a beautiful ceremony, very long speeches, some confusion about which choir should sing when. Thirteen hours of sitting. The new bishop himself seemed very impressed with the event. Expectations for him and the church are high in this new period of “peace” following the renewed national peace agreement last September.
What does the future hold?
Peace is not here yet. The atmosphere in South Sudan is one of cautious hope, alongside unspoken fear. This is certainly true in Eastern Equatoria, where people can travel by road and the market in Torit is bustling once again. At the same time, entire villages, including that of Father Opi, have been destroyed and depopulated. There is still fighting over grazing lands and cattle. Nobody knows what the near future will bring.
The installation of the new bishop, however, has given rise to a glimmer of hope, a brief moment when everyone came together, where there was room for renewed contact, togetherness and celebration. And these are the sparks of hope and the short moments that, despite everything, have meaning and deserve to be accentuated. For Father Opi, for all those people who had come to the initiation, and for all those who are working so hard on peace in South Sudan.