Sr Yudith Pereira RJM Ass. Executive Director, Photo: solidarityssudan.org/

South Sudan/Rome

The Suffering Hearts of the South Sudanese people

An interview with Sister Yudith Pereira by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada


Sister Yudith Pereira, a Religious of Jesus and Mary from Spain, spoke passionately to Aid to the Church in Need about the situation in South Sudan, the work of the Church and her organization’s mission to assist the people of South Sudan—always—but especially now, in the throes of a famine with catastrophic consequences.


We reached out to the Associate Executive Director of “Solidarity with South Sudan” at their international office located in Rome. The clear-voiced joyful and at the same time, soft-spoken, Sister Yudith, who has 17 years of missionary experience in Africa and a background in Agricultural Engineering, was especially happy to tell us that her order of religious had a special connection to Canada and a mutual cause for celebration, for the first of the blessed women in Canada—Dina Bélanger—also later known as Marie Sainte-Cécile de Rome—was also a religious of Jesus and Mary. Fittingly, the order’s charism is in part to provide education in the faith and a special concern for the poor and the disadvantaged.


“The situation is worsening”

In mid-June, the statistics indicated approximately one million children and possibly more, were suffering from malnutrition; while 250,000 of the food crisis cases were classified as very critical, and 5.5 million people were staring helplessly at the possibility of starvation—that is a shocking 40% of the country’s population.

When asked to share an overview of the situation in South Sudan and whether the famine was worsening or improving, she said: “No.  It is getting worse. The general situation of the country is worsening day by day.” As a frequent visitor to the country she ascertained, “the situation is worsening on all levels. The people are hungry, all of them. And you can see it, it’s terrible.”

Sister Yudith went on to explain the problem of inflation and access to supplies. “On one hand, the inflation is about 900%, so people can’t buy anything. The salaries have not increased. Even if there are things they could buy at the market; people still can’t reach them.” (…)It’s impossible to buy anything,” she said.


“But where are we going to get the food?”

Explaining that a great many people throughout the country have now been displaced, “people who were used to cultivating, once displaced, lose the capacity for producing food. So even in areas that may be producing food like in Riimenze where we [Solidarity with South Sudan] have a farm— around the main house there are more than 5,000 people displaced people who have left their farms because of fear of being attacked by one side or the other.”

“When rain comes, because the land is very flat in many areas it gets flooded. People cannot move. They cannot go to places to get food—or to camps to get food—so very often they eat grass”

Continuing with her description of the situation facing the people without singling out any of the different fighting factions she insisted, “We will only talk about the victims, because the situation is very complicated.” The religious Sister explained that even the people whose land is in a good location for cultivation are afraid of sackings by the armed groups for it is a regular occurrence. She said, “and they do it, even the refugees are sacked many times over, though they have nothing in their tents. It is a terrible situation. You may have money, but there are no roads and there is no market so you don’t know where to buy the food. It is a huge problem,” she said.


Sometimes, we are offered money to buy food—but where are we going to get the food? You can’t buy any. I know of some internationals bringing food from Uganda and Kenya, but it is very hard because there are no roads, there are huge holes in the roads, and they are very dangerous. You might be attacked,” she emphasized.

Reduced to eating grass

Another obstacle to food access according to Sister Yudith, is the rainy season which by mid-June, is well underway. “And then there is the rainy season … When rain comes, because the land is very flat in many areas it gets flooded. People cannot move. They cannot go to places to get food—or to camps to get food—so very often they eat grass. ‘People become isolated in many places, so it’s difficult to reach them— it has happened many times, that in an emergency, supplies have to be dropped by air in the hope that someone will find it. So it’s hard. Apart from that—the state does not give out enough for salaries, so people are not getting the usual money they should get—so the whole situation is terrible—it’s terrible everywhere. With much emotion, Sister Yudith reiterated the tragic reality, “Yes, they eat grass.” 


Is armed conflict at the source of the famine?

In early June, Pope Francis cancelled his foreseen trip to South Sudan indefinitely for security reasons. When asked about this and the conflict as the main source of the famine crisis, Sister Yudith said, “I think that yes, the origin of the famine crisis is the armed conflict. The people in South Sudan, the government and the opponents, they are fighting for power and for money, for funds. It is not an ethnic fight. And as for Pope Francis visiting… the last time I went to the airport—there was no airport!  One side was not yet finished, and the other was taken down and the new one is under plastic tents. It’s like a tent airport—there is no security for the Pope.”

“We are very sad about not having the visit. On the other hand, people need to be aware that we also need to work for peace. At the higher and the lower levels, more and more because if not, peace never will be there,” she said almost as a plea.


Religious of Jesus and Mary Sr. Yudith Pereira interacts with some children on a visit to South Sudan. (Provided photo) from the Global Sisters Report http://globalsistersreport.org


Helping Refugees and channeling emergency aid


When asked how the Church is working with the internally displaced people and what are they able to do she said “Most of us are helping refugees and channeling emergency aid, but as for Solidarity with South Sudan, we are not an emergency (relief) organization.”  The organization works with building community and providing training, “We still are focused on that but, of course, we channel emergency help. The problem is we don’t have the structure to do it, but we still have to do it! Around every parish and cathedral, everywhere—everywhere—around all the churches, you will find refugees and displaced people because they are considered safe places, or safer places. They are very involved in denouncing the situation and speaking up for peace—they can’t do more. They are doing a lot.” She went on to ask us to pray also for the people who are on the front lines helping the suffering, for it is very difficult work.


Please speak loudly!


When asked what the most pressing needs were for people of South Sudan in her view, she said what was of greatest importance was something somewhat surprising. “The thing people ask us for, is not food nor money. They tell us: Please speak loudly about what is happening in South Sudan. When Bishop Erkolano of Solidarity for South Sudan came to Rome, he asked us please to tell this story, to speak about this. He said a genocide is going on, killings are going on, and nobody speaks about it. It does not interest the world.”



This concludes this first part of our interview with Sister Yudith Per. Stay tuned to our networks for the second part where we will learn more about the role of women in solving the problems threatening South Sudan, and some of their stories and more. For more on how to help with the situation in South Sudan, you can visit our special website set-up to alleviate hunger in the region  http://www.acn-aed-ca.org/iamstarving/.



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