South Sudan church leader: 'We have lost everything'

Mgr Roko Taban said the diocese had lost everything

Entire swathes of a region in South Sudan have been abandoned by the local people who – according to their Church leader – have fled for their lives following a brutal attack carried out during a so-called ceasefire.

Monsignor Roko Taban, Apostolic Administrator of Malakal, described how a mass evacuation had been carried out across parts of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states following violence involving rebel forces under Riek Machar, South Sudan's former vice president.

Mgr Taban reported that all his diocesan priests and Sisters had fled south with nothing and were desperate to escape the violence which he stressed had continued despite last January's ceasefire between the rebels and South Sudan Government forces.

In response, Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need agreed on Wednesday to despatch nearly £21,000 for the priests and Sisters who have taken refuge in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and who need food, accommodation and medicine.

Describing how much of his diocese had been "completely destroyed", Mgr Taban told ACN: "We have lost everything – all our possessions.

"Many of our churches, homes and so on have been razed to the ground – and everything has been looted."

In the interview on Thursday, Mgr Taban told ACN that the last four priests in Malakal diocese were hoping to be evacuated today or tomorrow depending on the availability of transport.

Mgr Taban, who alongside his priests is temporarily accommodated in a Catholic seminary in Juba, highlighted his concern for his faithful in Malakal.

He said they had fled "to the bush", with many seeking refuge in remote villages which were now completely overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals.

Catholic Church sources say the 250,000-strong population of Malakal city are in desperate need, with many of them seeking help from a nearby UN displacement camp.

Mgr Taban stated: "Nobody [is] in Malakal. They ran for their lives. It was not possible for anybody to stay. The diocese is completely empty.

"We have lost everything as a diocese. We are in Juba with nothing. All documents have gone. No vehicles. Nothing completely."

In his request for help from ACN, Mgr Taban said his priests needed a "feeding allowance for six months" as well as basic prayer books and vestments for Mass, all of which they had been forced to abandon in Malakal.

Church leaders across the country urged help for people in the region whose entire livelihoods have been destroyed.

Mgr Taban said: "[We] need special attention of solidarity and love. We are miserable. Kindly remember us in your prayers."

Having also escaped Malakal for Juba, Comboni missionary Sister Elena Balatti said: "Malakal... is completely deserted, although our safety was guaranteed.

"Staying there would have been completely useless because we would not have had anyone to assist. The rebels are the only ones present."

In her message, sent to Catholic news agency Fides, Sr Elena said that Malakal had been attacked three times by the rebel forces – Christmas Eve and 14 January as well as 18 February.

She said that each attack had prompted a wave of migration from Malakal.

Nearly two weeks ago, the UN sounded the alarm about South Sudan, warning that the country could collapse before the end of the year and adding that nearly 900,000 had been displaced since the conflict erupted in mid-December.

Next Thursday is the scheduled date for the resumption of peace talks between Mr Machar's rebels and the government of South Sudan.

Both accuse each other of breaking the ceasefire of 23 January.