Warfare, droughts, famine, widespread hunger, floods, locust swarms and a global pandemic – all of these have been endured by the South Sudanese over the past decade.
Amid the turmoil, faith leaders like Edward Dima, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kajo-Keji and president of the Baptist Convention of South Sudan, have ministered faithfully to the physical and spiritual needs of refugees.
In 2011, South Sudan became an independent nation, making it the youngest in the world.
Two years later, a power struggle arose between the nation’s president, Salva Kiir, and ex-vice president, Riek Machar, that divided the nation.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), also known as SPLA-IG (in government), are loyal to Kiir, while the SPLM In Opposition (SPLM-IO) support Machar.
Other factions have emerged or become involved in the conflict, with intermittent fighting amid ongoing peace talks taking place since 2013.
Dima and his family left their home in Kajo-Keji on Jan. 31, 2017, heading for Uganda as refugees. They have been living there for the past four and a half years.
This is the second time Dima has been a refugee in Uganda, as he explained to Good Faith Media (then EthicsDaily.com) in a 2015 interview at the Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa.
He received training to become a Baptist minister while in a Ugandan refugee camp, returning to South Sudan in 2005 to help establish Baptist churches.
Since departing South Sudan in 2017, Dima and other ministers have been regularly visiting refugees in the camps to conduct worship services, provide counseling, coordinate medical mission work and bring supplies for educational programs.
Before he left his hometown, Dima witnessed multiple people who had been killed, including a disabled man and a woman who was raped and then shot.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, around 400,000 people have died due to the conflict and nearly 2.3 million have become refugees or asylum-seekers.
“200,000 people of Kajo-Keji County fled across the border to Moyo district of Uganda,” Dima told Good Faith Media via email. “We thank God the people who survived were resettled in the refugee camps of Palorinya settlement in the West Nile region of Uganda.”
In September 2018, a peace agreement was signed, but tensions have remained high and intermittent skirmishes between the various groups have continued.
Locust swarms arrived in February 2020 around the same time a new government was formed, further taxing an already tenuous food supply. Dima said he receives regular phone calls from people in South Sudan asking about food supplies.
Currently, an estimated 7.2 million people (60% of the nation) struggle with food security, with the U.N. World Food Programme saying in May that the nation was “one step away from famine.”
“There is severe hunger and insecurity in most parts of the country,” Dima told Good Faith Media, but circumstances in the Ugandan refugee camps aren’t much better.
Refugees are frustrated, he said, because lack of international funding for U.N. relief efforts has resulted in reduced food rations in the camps.
“The food ration is reduced to six kilograms of maize corn per person per month,” Dima said, “making it so hard for people to survive. So, refugee life is extremely hard coupled with the current COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda. The refugees are suffering, and they lack food.”
“The second variant of COVID-19, Delta, is killing a lot of people” in Uganda, he told GFM. “It’s very sad that hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, and there is a shortage of oxygen in the country. Things are tough, we need your prayers.”
In April 2021, the U.N. expressed concerns over the fragility of the coalition government formed in February 2020 and worried that “large-scale conflict” could return to the Sub-Saharan nation.
The next month, President Kiir dissolved the 400-member Parliament, a long-delayed action that was a key part of the 2018 peace deal, in order to form a new Parliament with 550 members. While a majority of members (332) will be from Kiir’s party, the other 218 members will be appointed by four different opposition groups.
Following the peace agreement, refugees have slowly been returning home despite a U.N. Refugee Agency’s non-return advisory remaining in place. More than 200,000 people have made their way back home in recent years as prospects in the nation seemed to improve.
“People are yearning to go back to South Sudan,” Dima told Good Faith Media. “There is a prospect for the refugee to return to South Sudan, but again some insecurity in other parts of South Sudan really hinders many from going back to the country. The slow peace implementation in the country created doubt in the mind of the refugee if the peace agreement is truthful.”
Fellow pastors are among those who have returned, Dima said. They are working to help others who have returned and have even been planting new churches. Yet, like most of the nation, they also worry about having sufficient food to eat.
Dima shared about the work of Pastor James Baibai who recently led a team from Maridi, South Sudan (located roughly 15 miles from the northern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo), to Mundri, around 76 miles northwest. They’re hoping to plant a church in Mundri to better minister to the needs of the people in this area.
“We need your prayers for God to bring everlasting peace in South Sudan,” Dima said. “We pray for God to bless the refugee with manna from above to feed the starving refugee population in Uganda and other parts of the world.”
“We pray for peace of mind and safety of pastors who are working hard to see that many churches are planted despite the hard situation,” he said. “Pray for their families who have nothing to eat.”