By David Raleigh
A West Cork missionary priest serving in South Sudan has given a chilling account of the moment a mob attacked his compound as a civil war rages in the country.
Up to 500 humanitarian workers have been evacuated from the Maban region, but Fr Tony O’Riordan, who is leading the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), has remained there to oversee a school building project and a teacher training programme.
The attack has forced JRS to “suspend all but critical activities” to safeguard staff remaining in Maban, said a JRS statement.
Maban County is home to one of the world’s most isolated refugee camps - a sprawling tent city for over 150,000 refugees.
The camps contain refugees who have fled famine and persecution in the Blue Nile region.
In the latest outbreak of violence, O’Riordan’s compound was attacked.
It happened on July 23, but telecommunication links out of the region are poor.
Responding via a series of social media messages O’Riordan said today there are “fifty of us left”.
“The situation is unpredictable.”
In an online posting on August 5, O’Riordan described how his personal walkie-talkie radio buzzed through news of an impending attack on his compound.
“News was filtering through on the radio of serious damage being done to property, buildings and warehouses were being set on fire, cars were being trashed and property was being looted,” he said.
“The closest compound to us is only 300 metres away, soon we could hear that they were under attack.
“We knew it was only a matter of time before a raiding party would arrive at our compound.
“We had locked up what we could. Local staff had run to their homes.
“Those of us remaining in the compound took shelter in our four strongest rooms.
“We feared the worst.
“We could hear the commotion of the 200 to 300 attackers who set out to cause mayhem.”
O’Riordan described it as part of “a coordinated series of attacks” on NGO compounds.
O’Riordan radioed UN Rwandan-soldiers based in the country “to extract us...but the event had caught everyone by surprise and the troops were overwhelmed”.
He described the terrifying moment the violent mob attempted to breach his compound’s perimeter fence, made of zinc metal sheeting:
Eventually, four members of the local parish council convinced the “mob” to desist and retreat.
“We were the only NGO compound to escape.”
O’Riordan said it was “a miracle” no lives were lost in the attacks.
However, he said, protestors left a “trail of destruction” causing damage to the Jesuit “learning centre where we deliver teacher training, English language classes and computer training was not spared”.
“Beds, books, computers, cooking pots, tables and chairs – everything was taken.
“The only thing that remains are the examination scripts of the 500 student teachers who had sat examinations the week before the attacks.”
O’Riordan queried speculation in the region that the protest was fueled by a lack of access to employment for locals: “No one yet knows whether this was an isolated act of organised violence or whether it is a prelude to a larger plan.
“Why would the protest actually shut down the organiastions that already employ hundreds of locals?,” he asked.
The violence has resulted in the evacuation of “five hundred” humanitarian workers to the capital Juba, O’Riordan said.
“Like other NGOs we headed under escort and took shelter in the barracks of the UN soldiers,” he added.
In another recent outbreak of violence “19 unarmed civilians were shot dead”.
“The dead included women and children.”
In another incident, at a sister JRS project in Yambio, “up to 40 children were abducted”.
“The boys to be forced to fight, the girls to be used as sex slaves.”
Despite the violence, O’Riordan said he remains committed to re-focusing his efforts on rebuilding what has been destroyed in the latest violence.
“We cannot give up,” he said.
A statement posted on the JRS Irish website described the attacks on NGOs as “vicious”.
“More than 300 staff from NGOs in the region, including 25 JRS team members have now been evacuated by the UN for their safety,” it added.
“The team is now safe and the project leader Fr Tony O'Riordan SJ is currently monitoring the situation.
“The attack has forced JRS to suspend all but critical activities in the local communities and with the refugee population in the Maban area.
“As the safety of the JRS team and facilities is under threat at the moment and resources including classrooms and equipment have been destroyed in the attack, there is no option to temporarily suspend work in the region.
“This will leave more than 80,000 people without access to the English-language classes, computer courses and teacher training education and training which provide much-needed opportunities for a more stable future for them and their community.
“Despite the attack on our facilities, the Irish Jesuit Mission office and partners will continue to support the JRS team on the ground in their commitment to provide psycho-social support and education programmes in the region,” stated Fr John Guiney SJ, Director of Irish Jesuit Missions which funds JRS programmes in Maban.
“Morale among the JRS team has been badly shaken by the incident which was frightening for everyone to witness.
“They are supporting each other, and are grateful for the leadership and guidance that Tony O’Riordan has provided, which has proved invaluable at this difficult time.
“This incident in Maban and other such incidents of violence in South Sudan over the past number of years calls for an urgent intervention by the international community to help to restore law, order and security for all of the people of this young nation” said Fr Guiney.