Passengers disembark and cargo is unloaded - 516 kilos of collapsible water bottles, blankets, food, and various other items. It’s hard to conceive that the busy Juba International Airport is just a 1 hour 15 minute flight due east.
This is Kuron, South Sudan where traditions date back as far as anyone can remember, tightly guarded and passed on for generations. It is a culture where men rule, girls are married off young, and cattle are everything. If you want the girl, you must have the cattle. If you don’t have enough cattle, you steal and kill to get them.
"We need to embrace the different cultures and the diversity in our communities" Bishop Paride Taban
A village for peace
Violence and death were part of life in Kuron - until Bishop Paride Taban entered their lives sixteen years ago with a radical dream - Holy Trinity Peace Village.
“We started the peace village because we wanted to breakdown tribalism. The Toposa, the Jie, the Murle and the Kachipo, who were quarrelling because of cattle raiding and could not move even two kilometres from their villages because of the killings”.
In 2005 the bishop took the opportunity to found the Holy Trinity Peace Village, transforming a settlement of Eighty-one families from different ethnic groups settled around a new bridge across the Kuron River.
Change has been neither fast or easy; a wide variety of programs promoting education, agriculture, health, peace, and community empowerment for women have been rolled out to tackle the root issues.
Approaches have ranged from sports; engaging cattle warriors in games to promote peace; to theatre, where groups 'act out' the consequences of cattle raiding.
Alongside this, is a two pronged approach of education and enforcement where “community leaders are trained in community policing and tasked with the responsibility to inform other leaders of stolen cattle,” Paride explains.
Tribes in the Kuron region are pastoralists, relying on meat, milk, and wild fruit for their diet. Hunger is a perennial root cause of conflict.
In 1999 Bishop Paride established a demonstration farm where the different tribes could learn how to grow fast maturing crops such as cassava, fruits, and a variety of vegetables, receiving seeds and tools to start their own plots.
They learnt farming techniques such as ox-ploughing, all with the purpose of gradually transforming them into agro-pastoralists.
The hope was to see communities embrace farming, ensure food security, and reduce the conflicts between the communities competing for the same finite resources.
“What ‘makes’ South Sudan are the different ethnic groups, the different tribes and different regions” Bishop Paride Taban
Training for the Future
“The Bishop also established a vocational school to attract the youth away from cattle raiding,” explains Jonas Halvorsen, a Norwegian who runs the vocational school set up to teach practical skills, such as welding and carpentry.
“We have had students from both tribes at the school, living and training together, and that’s a sign of peace. There have been no conflicts within the school.”
The people say the school is important for the future of their youth and community but recruiting students for the school has been difficult.
A route out of isolation
The road from Narus to Kuron will develop in the future – a source of potential employment and income for the local community. But as Jonas points out, if the local people do not have the skills, outsiders will be running the businesses, building the roads, welding, and doing the carpentry.
“So this is something we stress the whole time to get more students into the school, so they can be part of their own future,” Jonas says.
For now, the isolation continues to be tangible for those who live and work here.
“Because of this remote location, in the rainy season you find yourself isolated for half the year" explains Jonas.
"There’s no communication, no phone, no radios" he continues. "There are roads, but because of the rain, these roads are unusable. We use MAF, back and forth - to run this place without the airstrip and access to the airplane would be very, very difficult.”
Horizons are extending, as Bishop Paride shared in 2013 when he was awarded the UN Sergio Vieira de Mello Peace Prize for his contribution toward reconciliation of communities in conflict. People once confined by small tribal territories “can now move for over 270 km. The communities no longer refer to each other as enemies but as friends.”
Bishop Paride hopes to pass on his experiences by training and mentoring others to do the same work in other parts of South Sudan. He is realistic but not deterred by the challenges he has encountered.
“What ‘makes’ South Sudan are the different ethnic groups, the different tribes and different regions. We need to embrace the different cultures and the diversity in our communities for harmonious living” he concludes.
It is a brave and a necessary dream for a country scarred by conflict. Kuron Peace Village is a community preparing for a future that is both here and on the way – an important destination for those flying for ‘life’ in South Sudan.