Father Gregor Schmidt is a German Catholic priest and missionary. He has been working in South Sudan since 2011, when it became an independent state after years of civil war.
On a recent visit to Germany, he spoke to Deutsche Welle about his experiences in a country in which renewed fighting persists amid a looming humanitarian crisis.
DW: Describe for us the situation where you mission is stationed?
Father Gregor Schmidt: Our mission is in Fangak County which is in the north western corner of Jonglei State. There are no roads leading into our county, but there is a river, a tributary of the Nile along which traders bring goods, so we have a small market, we have a clinic. But apart from that, the whole county area is quite isolated from the rest of the region. So we are in the fortunate situation that the civil war has not reached our county. Elsewhere there have been battles, people have been displaced, and many of them come to our region because they assume that we will not be affected.
There are no battles taking place in our village, although we have the county capital in the north, situated next to the river Nile, and on the other side is a soldiers' barracks that has changed hands – sometimes the government, sometimes the rebels. There is no bridge over the river, so it is not possible to cross with heavy artillery, so for that reason there has never been an attempt to enter inside the county.
How are relations between local communities and rebels led by Riek Machar?
There is no personal contact with Riek Machar; he has never been in the area. The Nuer are all supporting the rebellion, more or less. They would like to see the president step down.
It is difficult in this conflict to differentiate between the local population and the rebels, because there is no distinction between civilians and fighters in our sense.
This is because pastoralist people, those who have cattle, all possess arms because they have to defend themselves against cattle raiders. There are a lot of inter-ethnic clashes every year, with thousands of people dying in those conflicts. There has never been a peaceful year, even before this civil war.
In each region there are different reasons why people want to fight, or why they feel they need to defend themselves.
When local residents come to your mission, what do they tell you?
We have a lot of refugees who have come from other parts of the country. Because we are a Nuer area, naturally only Nuer come to us, because they have family, distant relatives where they can stay. They all had to leave because their villages were plundered, looted, burned down, destroyed in different ways.
We have a small clinic so the Red Cross chose our village to help on the rebel side – they do this with official permission from the government, because they are neutral and work on both sides to help the wounded.
We've heard a lot of stories, we have seen a lot of people without arms or legs, because they have been amputated, and those stories certainly also affect how the local population lives.
There is tension because we don't know what the future holds. Because of the war there are no trader boats coming any more, so supplies in the market have run short. Various food items like rice and sugar have run out. What remains is the local food, sorghum, which is planted there in the region, and certainly fish from the river, and also milk from the cows is always there – that is the staple that the people rely on.
People tell me that they lost relatives, that their villages have been looted. This happens on both sides. There is a tragic interplay of an ethnic logic, which has become violent, you can no longer stop the revenge killings; the thirst for retribution, it's very strong. In the traditional ethnic system of the tribes, for one person killed on one side, one person has to be killed on the other side. That worked at the local level. And now, if you have a conflict where you can no longer count the dead, this thirst for revenge and retribution knows no limits.
Is there any particular event during the conflict that affected you deeply?
In another mission where our missionaries work, there is a soldiers' barracks, a mix of soldiers of different tribes – including Dinka, Nuer, and other groups. The Nuer there planned to kill the other soldiers, loot the mission, take the cars and run away to fight in the rebellion. That plan was uncovered, the Nuer soldiers, about ten people, were killed as a penalty, and then they [the Dinka soldiers] also wanted to kill the wives and children as well - because in the ethnic system, if you see that your father has been killed, you might take revenge later, and they wanted to prevent the sons from killing another Dinka when they grow up. That was a very tense situation but the local community was able to protect those children.
But that shows the tragic interplay of ethnic groups, how they also think in terms of generations, and even if we find a solution now, a conflict might break out again in a few years time. This shows the tragedy of how these people cannot escape from the situation.
But I would also like to share a positive experience with you from our region, Fangak County.
The neighboring county is inhabited by a sub-tribe of the Dinka, who have lived there for centuries, peacefully alongside Nuer people, and the elders of both counties met together and agreed that this was not their conflict; they would remain living peacefully next to each other. The Dinka also come to our hospital as patients, and for me that is a very hopeful sign that it is possible for different groups to co-exist in the same country, and maybe also build this country together.
Father Gregor Schmidt is serving as a Comboni missionary in South Sudan, based in Fangak County where he works primarily with the local Nuer people. Comboni missionaries have had a presence in Sudan for over a century, they follow the teachings of Daniel Comboni, a Roman Catholic saint who was a missionary in Sudan in the 1800s.
Interviewer: Isaac Mugabi