By David Alton
The auxiliary bishop of Torit in Southern Sudan, Akio Johnson, is a bishop with nine lives. With engaging humour he makes light of the nine attempts that have been made on his life but he is unsure whether he will survive a tenth.
His survival in the face of assassin’s bullets, ambush, and the torrent of bombs that have been unleashed by the Sudanese government is nothing short of miraculous: “God clearly put me here for a purpose” he told me.
The bishop’s story is a metaphor for the suffering, resilience and the endurance of Sudanese Christians. Rarely is the good shepherd faced with the reality of having to lay down his life for his flock but Akio Johnson risks death for them daily.
I was in Southern Sudan and the neighbouring district of Turkana, in northern Kenya, with Jubilee Action. They recently built a dormitory for blind children in Kenya’s Marsabit docese . While there it provided an opportunity to travel into Sudan with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Bishop Akio.
During twenty years of attrition Torit diocese has been pounded into the ground.
Earlier in the summer, while the two sides were engaged in hammering out the Machakos Peace Plan (which subsequently fell apart) Bishop Akio’s home and compound were destroyed by the Sudanese aerial bombardment.
In three raids on Ikotos, on June 26th, June 29th and 12th of July, 72 bombs were dropped on his residence. It was obliterated. If its occupants had not scrambled into shelters there would have been a massacre.
The compound also housed a primary and secondary school. The primary school of St.Teresa of the Child Jesus and the secondary school of St.Augustine (where more than 200 children were being educated), were destroyed. Miraculously the prudent provision of bomb shelters (provided by funds from Cafod) saved their lives but Bishop Akio told me ‘many children were vomiting and crying; they were deeply traumatized.’
Early years education for South Sudan’s children involves learning the difference between the engines of UN relief planes and the bombers – and then running for your life. One of Bishop Akio’s priests told me ‘people are living like foxes in holes, just to survive.’
On September 1st the SPLA liberated Torit and the scale of the destruction became apparent.
Torit has been forcibly Islamicised; the Koran imposed; the road signs changed to Arabic and water and medicine only given to people who have changed their identities to Islamic names. One group of 180 children had been taken to Khartoum and radically indoctrinated, encouraging a hatred of their parents, and turning them into child soldiers.
Recently the Sudanese government intensified its attacks on areas near oilfields with the aim of depopulating those districts. Oil revenues have allowed the Khartoum government to increase military spending from £110 million to £220 million. Bishop Akio is scornful of the morality of western oil companies: “every barrel of oil they extract is half full of oil and half full of blood. When people decide where to buy their petrol they should remember that,” he says. Certainly oil companies should be required to disclose the payments they make to the government of Sudan and – as the recent withdrawal of Premier Oil from Burma illustrates – they are susceptible to consumer pressure.
Sudan’s best hope is the reconvening of the peace process and the construction of a civil society where human rights and religious tolerance form its basis. Then maybe Bishop Akio and his flock will no longer be in daily danger of losing their lives.
If you want to help Bishop Akio as a volunteer teacher, medic or catechist contact Jubilee Action on 01483 894787.