South Sudan's displaced hope pope's visit will bring peace

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis attends the Vespers prayer service to celebrate the conversion of St. Paul at St. Paul's Basilica in Rome, Italy, January 25, 2023. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

JUBA (Reuters) - After spending nearly a decade in a camp for the displaced in South Sudan's Juba, Mayen Galuak hopes that Pope Francis' visit to the capital city next week will inspire political leaders to finally restore peace, allowing him to go home.

The 44-year-old entered the United Nations camp, just a few kilometres from his residence, in search of safety three days after conflict broke out in 2013.

In the ensuing years, he has watched as South Sudan's leaders forged peace deals and broke them; as militias carried out and denied ethnic massacres; and as relentless conflict pushed parts of the country into famine.

Pope Francis is due to go to Congo from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 and then spend two days in South Sudan. The pope has wanted to visit predominantly Christian South Sudan for years but plans were postponed due to the instability there and a scheduled trip last June was cancelled due to the pope's knee ailment.

The Vatican's envoy to the Democratic Republic of Congo has said the trip will remind the world not to ignore decades-long conflicts.

"We are in a bad situation... since 2013, we have not seen any good peace," said Galuak, who says he can't travel to his birth home in the country's north because of the risk of attack. Sporadic clashes continue to kill civilians throughout the country.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011. Two years later conflict erupted when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar, who is from a rival ethnic group. The bloodshed spiralled into a civil war that killed 400,000 people.

A 2018 deal stopped the worst of the fighting, but parts of the agreement - including the deployment of a reunified national army - have not yet been implemented.

Galuak and many other displaced people say they won't feel safe until the unified forces are deployed.

"If there was peace, we would have returned to our homes," said Nyalon Gatfan, a mother of four at the Juba camp.

Galuak and many of the 52,000 others living in his camp hope a first ever papal visit will see leaders honour the agreement.

There are 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan and another 2.3 million have fled the country as refugees, according to the UN.

Over the past six months, life in the camp has grown harder. In June, the UN cut food aid to South Sudan because of inadequate funding.

"Nowadays, we eat once a day," said Gatfan.

Conflict, climatic shocks, and economic crisis are plunging the country deeper into food insecurity. The UN said 7.76 million people - about two-thirds of South Sudan - are likely to face acute food insecurity this year.

"I want the Pope to tell our leaders to understand the suffering we are going through," said Gatfan.

(Reporting by Waakhe Simon Wudu, Writing by Ayenat Mersie; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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