The South Sudan Council of Churches is an umbrella organization for seven Christian denominations — African Inland Church, Catholic, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical Presbyterian and Sudan Interior Church — working on peace and reconciliation in South Sudan and based in Juba, the capital. The country has been fighting a civil war for exactly four years. As part of the crisis, a United Nations peacekeeping mission was installed in 2011.
The war in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, has led to the largest refugee crisis in Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than two million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries and nearly two million have fled their homes and found refuge internally, such as in camps hosted by the peacekeeping mission. Nearly seven million people need food aid in the country, and more than one million face outright starvation.
In a possible breakthrough, a new cease-fire was agreed on by the warring parties to freeze all fighting as of Dec. 24; at last notice, however, violations had occurred, according to news reports.
Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen is an adviser to the South Sudan Council of Churches’ leadership (seconded as a diplomat by his government, Switzerland). He has a master’s degree in international humanitarian affairs from Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., and has worked on various peace processes in South Sudan since 2012, both with the government and the Council.
Switzerland has been engaged in South Sudan since its independence in 2011 from Sudan to help alleviate the suffering of South Sudanese through humanitarian aid and to foster dialogue with the country’s traditional authorities and youth to find a route to peace in the war-torn country.
The Council works on four main pillars: advocacy, neutral forums, reconciliation and organizational strengthening of the Council itself. Neutral forums are meant to put an “emergency handbrake” on conflicts by bringing national and local leaders to safe spaces where they can talk about issues that could otherwise drive them into violent conflict.
Given the lack of infrastructure in the country, the UN mission, whose acronym is Unmiss, has played a key role in making the neutral forums possible. In Boma state, for example, the Murle people have recently been experiencing intra-communal tensions that risked becoming violent after a previous bout of violence.
The Council was asked by a local grass-roots group to help the Murle leadership enter into dialogue, so the church took them to a quiet, remote place maintained by a retired Catholic bishop, where they could talk and listen to each other without access to a telephone network, bodyguards or their retinue.
This is the kind of work that von Habsburg-Lothringen has been doing in South Sudan. He has lived in Africa for the last 25 years, mostly in Sudan and South Sudan, providing advisory support to government leaders, the UN and nongovernmental organizations.
In a Skype interview with PassBlue, he described his extensive work in conflict zones, particularly in South Sudan, how he copes with the physical and psychological toll and the importance of patience in working for peace.
He began the conversation by crediting the UN mission for its help in the gathering in Boma.
“Unmiss did all the heavy lifting,” von Habsburg-Lothringen said. “Their helicopter lifted those leaders and the church officials and then brought them back. Without their help, it would have been impossible. The seasonal rains make many landing strips inaccessible, sometimes for weeks.”
“It’s easy to say Unmiss is just logistical support,” he added. “But without it, it would be very hard to conceive of any real process happening.”
He then delved into the strain and achievements of his work in the war zones of South Sudan.
“I think there are several aspects working, and working well, in this environment. One is the physical and security environment. There is a lot of physical and mental stress, psychological stress — that’s something that hits people very hard when they come to South Sudan. Temperatures are 40 degrees [Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit] most of the year round. It’s really tough to keep focus, to keep doing what you do, to not run out of energy. It’s a very, very demanding environment. You’ve got to be able to work your way through it without collapsing or being Medivac-ed out. I guess I’ve just about managed that.
Psychologically, it’s very hard. Obviously, I’ve been in Sudan and South Sudan for the last 22 years and wherever I’ve gone, wherever I’ve been, it’s been frontline. Frontline areas with active fighting, some aerial bombardments, threat of land mines, shooting. . . . 2016 is the most recent example where we were all caught up in three days of terrible fighting, shells flying overhead and people killed in large numbers and so on, and it’s very, very stressful. You realize just how much you’re affected by that.
As everybody was evacuated, I, as a consultant at that time, refused evacuation. I said I would rather stay with the church and support the church there and I did that. It was important to be present, helping the general-secretary and the chair of the Council, in what was a very difficult time for them. The church was being pushed here and there, people were running for their lives, people were starving inside Juba city. These are things . . . you have to take decisions. So I took my decision.
I think the other aspect is much more personal: how you engage with people. For me, I have learned the art of infinite patience.
I can say that because a lot of people are really surprised by how much I put up with without losing my temper. An accompaniment is essentially taking your time to accept anything that comes your way, whether it’s helping someone draft a letter, or they talk to me for an hour because they just had a very bad day. These are apparently unrelated things, but I think they’re as important as the big, strategic image of what the council is trying to do.
I think without individuals, without supporting individuals, the whole won’t function. The art of patience is sitting with people in a room which is very hot and where questions are repeated very often, one day after another. For me, it’s not about tolerating, it’s about actually absorbing that and accepting that that’s the day to day way in which South Sudanese want to be helped and work.
The other part of it is how stressed people are and how easily they break down, either emotionally, or in terms of losing their tempers. You have to swallow a lot, and act as a kind of an absorbent to help people through these things.
Obviously, then you have to ask yourself: how do you manage that? How do you manage all that stress? I go off and pray. I watch silly movies, I hang out with my children and with my wife. All of those things help me detox and remove a lot of that stuff away from me. If it wasn’t for that, I would have left the country long ago.
So all of these things have really formed my role with the Council, and I think it’s very much appreciated that there is somebody quiet that tries to be thoughtful, reflective, compassionate and empathetic. That’s very much something you need working with the church. It’s not an NGO, it’s not high-flying or fast-moving.
It is a very slow, steady and important work. That’s how I feel I’m relevant for the Council and for people I work with.”