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Years of civil war, but God’s word is alive in South Sudan

BIBLE SOCIETY NEWS | Kaley Payne
Eternity #69 May 2016

“This Shilluk Bible is keeping people alive – it is food and consolation during the difficult times we are facing,” says Roda Nyacien Oman.

Roda is one of the translators of the Shilluk Bible and has been caught up in intense fighting in Malakal in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, the homeland of the Shilluk people.

In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in an agreement that aimed to end Africa’s longest-running civil war. Sudan, to the north, is predominantly populated by Arab Muslim people, while in the South, the newly formed country is mainly Christian or animist. However, the creation of South Sudan has not eased tensions. A civil war between government and rebels has lasted over three years and displaced close to 2.2 million people fleeing violence and ethnic persecution.

A ceasefire was agreed in August 2015, but fighting continues across the country. Human rights authorities say thousands of child soldiers have fought in the conflict on both sides and refugee camps are flooded with people seeking protection from the conflict.

The Shilluk people are from the north of South Sudan, where the fighting has been worst. Thousands of ordinary families have fled their homeland and arrived in refugee camps in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.

“The Shilluk people who do have Bibles are reading them day and night,” she says. “The ones I saw being used by people in the UN camp are almost worn out from constant use.”

Roda was one of them. As battles raged in the streets, she fled to a United Nations refugee camp. There, she says, the Shilluk people are turning to the Bible for hope and healing.

“The Shilluk people who do have Bibles are reading them day and night,” she says. “The ones I saw being used by people in the UN camp are almost worn out from constant use.”

That’s just the people who can read. Decades of civil war, including the latest conflict, have devastated education in the region. According to UNICEF, education in South Sudan is among the worst in the world. Only a quarter of adults can read and more than a million children are not in school.

Edward Kajivora, who leads Bible Society’s team in South Sudan, says waves of people in refugee camps are coming to faith and are longing to read God’s word. But right now, few of them can do so.

The new nation of South Sudan is only a few years older than the Shilluk Bible itself. The Bible was launched in 2013 to enormous fanfare from a people who had been waiting to hear God speak to them in their own language for the first time. It was launched in Malakal, where Roda is from. But now, Roda and her people have been forced from their homes and are living in refugee camps. No one knows when they might be able to return to their homeland.

“During a war there’s nothing you can rely on for help apart from God,” says Kajivora. “When you really need God, you need to read or hear what God says in the Bible.”

“During a war there’s nothing you can rely on for help apart from God,” says Kajivora. “When you really need God, you need to read or hear what God says in the Bible.”

Kajivora says many Shilluk people have a Shilluk Bible but cannot read it. They put the Bible under their pillow so God can be near to them and help them in their many troubles. Others ask passers-by in the camps to read it to them.

Life in refugee camps is hard. The enormous influx of refugees from the north has resulted in overcrowding, and basic services including shelter and sanitation are under strain. Other charities are doing their best to help with these services. One of the United Nations’ priorities is to improve access to education within the camps, as one means of warding off child recruitment into government or rebel forces.

Bible Society, too, is doing its part among the Shilluk people in particular, working with churches surrounding the refugee camps in Juba to offer Bibles and to start literacy classes as soon as possible to help people learn to read and write.

“The people are anxious to learn,” says Kajivora. The classes will not only help the Shilluk people with basic literacy and numeracy skills that will carry them into the future, but will offer hope, healing and reconciliation through access to God’s word.

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