When a famine points to a deeper need

The UN issued its first famine alert in six years, citing starvation in war-torn South Sudan. While food aid is needed, this new African nation needs the reconciliation skills of its church leaders to end a long conflict.

A woman waits to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Program(WFP) in Thonyor, South Sudan, Feb. 26.

Last week, the United Nations issued its first famine alert in six years, citing a dire need for aid to reach 100,000 people currently facing starvation in South Sudan. At least another million people in the East African nation are on the brink of famine, the UN said, a result largely of a three-year civil war. The alert drew welcome promises of food aid from a few wealthy nations. But equally in need is a fresh way to end the conflict in the world’s youngest country.

South Sudan, which has a large Christian population, gained independence from mostly Arab Sudan in 2011. Within two years, its leaders split in a violent power struggle, triggering tribal differences and worries about a potential genocide. Nearly a third of the country’s 11 million people have been displaced. Now starvation is spreading, forcing a renewed focus on efforts to reconcile South Sudanese at the grass-roots level.

The country’s president, Salva Kiir, promises a “national dialogue” to achieve a political settlement. But he has yet to start the process and is widely distrusted. He also rejects a proposal for transitional administration run by the UN. In addition, foreign mediators, such as other African nations, have failed to end the fighting. To facilitate a peace process, many experts point to the country’s most trusted and impartial institution, the South Sudan Council of Churches, which is made up of different Christian faiths.

With foreign aid, the council has begun reconciliation work in villages divided by conflict or beset by militias. “The people of South Sudan must come to terms with the effects of trauma and rebuild ties between communities in order to lay the foundation for long-term peace and reconciliation,” said Bob Leavitt, an official at the US Agency for International Development, last year.

In addition, the ecumenical council has reached out to world leaders of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches for support. This week, Pope Francis said he hopes to travel to South Sudan soon along with the head of the Anglican Church, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

To bring its famine as well as its cycle of violence to an end, South Sudan needs the kind of patience that religious leaders can offer in bringing rival leaders and groups together in public discussions about social healing. Other countries that have suffered conflict, such as Liberia, have found reconciliation by relying on traditional methods of arbitration. South Sudan must do the same, community by community, even as food aid is rushed to its hungriest people.

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