FR Stephen Kumyangi describes South Sudan as “a little hell on earth”.
It’s hard for him to describe his own country that way, but with kidnappings, beatings, rape and murder commonplace under a repressive regime, he knows the dire description fits.
“Every South Sudanese living here or in America or the UK are depressed about the situation – there looks like no solution at all,” the Brisbane priest said.
“We are only praying for divine providence.”
Four years ago, Fr Kumyangi, a priest for 19 years, was invited to leave his diocese in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State – home to about one million Catholics – to come to Brisbane archdiocese and become chaplain for the St Bakhita Sudanese Catholic community.
It was difficult for him to leave his parish and his people, but there was also a need among the 1500 South Sudanese Catholics in Brisbane, just a sprinkling of the four million displaced South Sudanese who have fled hunger, oppression and war.
There are other communities in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
Fr Kumyangi’s pastoral role is to unite the community, including youth, help them overcome the trauma that still haunts many, and to reach out and help those still in South Sudan.
After a fragile ceasefire to civil war was reached last year, plans to form a unity government have stalled, and tens of thousands of people remain living away from their homes in forests, in displacement camps, or across the border in refugee camps in Congo and Uganda.
“Many people are just dying in the forests because of hunger,” Fr Kumyangi said.
“Also the government soldiers go after them, in the forests and into the camps.”
Others have trekked to northern Africa, joined the stream of refugees on precarious sea journeys bound for European ports.
An unrecorded number never make it.
“Tears run down my eyes when I saw one of the clips sent to me from Libya,” Fr Kumyangi (pictured) said.
“The Libyan government arrest these people and treat them beyond human dignity.”
Heartbreaking stories are shared among Brisbane’s St Bakhita Sudanese community.
Families use social media to stay in contact with relatives.
Often the news they receive is video clips documenting the latest violence on the streets.
The only support they can offer from Australia is to send money – typically $100 to $200 out of weekly salary.
As a community abroad with a common purpose, they would like to pool their resources and send containers of goods, but the logistics of doing so has so far proven impossible.
“We are still studying and battling to work out how we do it,” Fr Kumyangi said.
“Prayer is one of the options because it is only God who can intervene in that situation in South Sudan.
“My main message is let people unite, and then they will overcome a lot of difficulties.
“Unity is paramount for the situation, to come to a peace.”
Fr Kumyangi knows the struggle first hand.
Even while making preparations to come to Australia, Fr Kumyangi was targeted by government soldiers and was forced to flee with four others from his parish – Our Lady of Fatima – taking refuge in a forest.
“We remained in the bush for three days eating raw cassava, drinking dirty water and sleeping on dry leaves, “ he said.
“Why they wanted to kill me is because I could not accept the people being vandalised.
“I helped to speak for their rights, and also let them know they are human beings.”
In January, Fr Kumyangi set off to visit family and acquaintances living in a refugee camp in Uganda, describing conditions there as “appalling”
His own brother died, in a hospital near the camp shortly before Fr Kumyangi was able to make contact with him.
“When you see the people living in a squalid environment there is scarcity of water, food, and no proper shelter,” he said.
Despite the hardships he has witnessed, Fr Kumyangi wants to return to his parish, at some point.
He is full of respect for fellow priests who have stayed in South Sudan despite the bloodshed and targeting of the Church.
“Those who remain are those who say come what may we are going to die here,” he said.
“If you are a good shepherd you stay with your flock.
“I have a colleague (a priest) who remained in the bush with his people for almost half a year.
“When he came out he was pale and sick and was taken to Uganda for rehabilitation.”