Displaced South Sudanese celebrate joyous Christmas mass amid fragile hope of peace
People who have sought sanctuary in the UN protection site in Juba celebrated Christmas Day both en masse and in style. With previous unfulfilled promises of an end to fighting having been dashed, trust may be hard to come by, but a sense of fragile hope that the recently agreed ceasefire will hold prevails.
As we are entering the dusty dirt road leading to the Protection of Civilian site, we are greeted by a palpable, unmistakable feeling of joy and solemnity. Crowds of smiling, waving men, women and children are dressed to the nines to mark the unique spirit of Christmas. Children are playing with simple but new toys, an inordinate amount of them seem to have had brightly coloured, oversized sunglasses at the top of their wish lists, and they are all being featured on this special day.
An old hangar, chockablock with some 400-500 Christmas revellers on plastic chairs, serves as a makeshift community church. Hairdos are meticulously done, suits and ties can be spotted on men and boys alike, long, flowing robes and shirts as funky as they come as well.
We are all embraced by the relentless Juba morning heat, which is soon forgotten as human warmth, togetherness, hypnotic drumming and chanting take centre stage, between the Jebel Mountain to the left and two white crosses on a Christmassy red backdrop to the right.
When the communal singing and dancing begin, the place is transformed into a colourful mass of human unity in gently, swaying motion. Peacekeepers attending the church service are visibly struck by this show of togetherness in the midst of the violence and poverty plaguing this war-torn country. What we are watching is a powerful hint of potential, of what can become of South Sudan if durable peace can be achieved.
Perhaps under the contagious influence of these scenes of joyous dignity, of what could be, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan Deputy Police Commissioner, Unaisi Vuniwaqa, called on the young people present to be optimistic about the future, to seize the opportunities ahead of them, and to take care of the women and children in the camp.
"I thank you for allowing us to be part of your Christmas service and celebrations today. UNMISS is here to protect civilians and that includes all of you. But we need your help. We cannot do this without you so help us to help you. We need to work together to bring peace to our community."
Internally displaced person Makuar Mangan Kohna said he hoped that the ceasefire signed at the recent High Level Revitalization Forum in Addis Ababa would hold. He has been at the camp for four years and said many of his friend and family had died in the conflict.
"People are killing. Children are dying. I hope that it will change. But we have been through this process many times and it has failed. Our leaders need to come together to stop the fighting and bring peace so that we can leave this place and go home to be with our families. We need peace."
At least for a few hours, Mr. Kohna’s and his fellow PoC dwellers’ prayers for peace were heard and respected.