Catholic congressman returns from South Sudan, aims to fight famine

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks with an aid worker May 29 at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Arua, Uganda. (CNS/U.S. Embassy in Uganda)

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks with an aid worker May 29 at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Arua, Uganda. (CNS/U.S. Embassy in Uganda)

By Carolyn Mackenzie
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Catholic congressman fresh from a fact-finding trip to East Africa, conscious of the human rights concerns brought on by famine and military violence, aims to increase funding for affected areas and urge reappointment of a special envoy to the region under the Trump administration.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, recently returned from leading a congressional delegation to South Sudan and Uganda. Along with Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, Smith traveled to East Africa to address the famine and violence plaguing the area.

Smith and Bass met with President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan and President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda. Smith said the appointment of Gen. James Ajongo Mawut as military chief of staff in South Sudan will likely mark a turning point from previous leadership.

“Now if he (Ajongo) can succeed and inculcate the values of protection and human rights observance within the military, from the generals down to the private, I think there will be a transformative change in the country of South Sudan,” Smith said.

Despite the magnitude of this crisis — about 3.8 million people have been displaced and at least 28 million people are in need of food aid — few in the United States are aware. Affecting not only those native to Eastern Africa, the human rights abuses carried out by military members have also been directed toward visiting relief workers. Among the atrocities perpetrated was the July 2016 raid on the Terrain hotel complex, during which South Sudanese soldiers raped and beat foreigners and killed a journalist.

“There are more people killed in South Sudan who are part of the humanitarian network than any other country in the world,” Smith said. “It is a terrible, terrible toll. These are the people bringing food, clothing, shelter, medicine to a desperate people.”

Senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, Smith has visited East Africa twice now in two years, his previous visit taking place in August 2016, during which he spoke with Salva Kiir.

“In the meeting last August, we stressed with him how important it was to not only hold the perpetrators of this to account, but also to have a zero-tolerance policy that is enforceable for his entire security and military apparatus,” Smith said.

From May 27 until June 2, Smith, Bass and their congressional delegation visited three refugee camps. The famine, caused mostly by armed conflict and exacerbated by drought, has led to the flight of more than a million refugees from South Sudan to Uganda and other adjacent countries.

“The trip was extremely educational for the both of us but the main takeaway from the trip was more than clear; there’s still work to be done,” Bass said to CNS in an email. “When you visit a camp with hundreds of thousands of refugees, you begin to understand on a much deeper level the impact of man-made famine. The conditions are devastating and the international community is in a position to do something about it.”

Smith lauded the efforts already being made in South Sudan by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency. Along with several United Nations agencies, CRS has been making great strides in the effort to combat the crisis, helping to provide food, water and health assistance in the areas affected. Smith also called for the faith community to further ignite reconciliation in the area for healing to begin.

“We met with Catholic Relief Services’ leaders while we were there in Juba, we saw them in action in Uganda,” Smith said. “They’re also doing wonderful work on the reconciliation piece, using the church as a venue to try to bring the disparate elements into a dialogue and discussion to lower the tensions.”

Though he explained that the famine in South Sudan has largely been the product of military unrest, Smith echoed concerns which Pope Francis raises in “Laudato Si’,” the encyclical addressing humankind’s duty to “Care for Our Common Home,” as the document’s full title says. As efforts increase to bring electricity to Africa, Smith calls for an environmentally conscious path forward.

“My hope would be that we do it in the most environmentally sane and safe way, and that means that clean energy, biomass, where possible, certainly photovoltaic cells, solar, all provide part of the mix going forward,” Smith said.

Furthermore, Smith outlined political pathways for further progress in South Sudan, calling for a special envoy to be reappointed. He also hopes to further the efforts of organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and to foster reconciliation in an area ridden with strife.

“When you talk to somebody who’s just a matter of feet away, dialoguing and trying to have a meeting of the hearts, it makes going out and using guns and knives and weapons to destroy that much harder,” Smith said.

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