A Discussion with Mauro Garofalo, Head of International Relations for the Community of Sant’Egidio

With: Mauro Garofalo Berkley Center Profile

May 4, 2020

Background: The South Sudan conflict troubles all who supported the world’s newest nation. Complex peacebuilding efforts offer successive promise and dashed hopes. Among those working for peace is the Rome-based lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, and Mauro Garofalo serves it as director of international relations. In this exchange with Katherine Marshall on May 4, 2020 (by zoom) Mauro described the situation, highlighting its complex origins and still more complex contemporary manifestations. The long-standing role of the Community of Sant’Egidio is situated within the broader efforts to resolve the conflict, including the role of “Track 1” and “Track 2” negotiations and of Pope Francis and the Vatican. The discussion also turned to Garofalo’s ties to Sant’Egidio from his high school years.

“I would say that this is above all a story of keeping personal relations alive, for decades, of watching with attention the international process and the crisis in the country, not forgetting the faith element in this, which is always important according to Sant’Egidio. and also to find a suitable space to play a positive role in a situation that was already very crowded, and with a lot of competition. As a final point, I would say never give up.”

You’re involved in many international crises, but let’s start with South Sudan. How is the Community of Sant’Egidio involved there? And how have you personally been involved?

It's a complicated story, because South Sudan is a complicated country, even though it's a very young one: the world’s youngest, to be precise. Even before the new nation was born in 2011, the Community of Sant’Egidio and our international staff, were involved.

The context takes us to the complex story of dialogue and support that led to independence. We were working with the then movement for liberation, the SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement) and the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army). Various representatives, including the most senior, Dr. Garang, were at Sant'Egidio various times, to explore how to support the south’s struggle for independence. At issue was how to free this largely Christian population from an oppressive regime with attitudes that were unbearable for the population, There was a deep awareness of oppression and unfair exploitation of human and natural resources

We were present during all the various stages of talks that led to independence. We were there during the final stretch. And we were there at the independence celebration in John Garang Memorial Square. John Garang was already dead. Juba’s largest square is Celebration Square, but there is also the memorial to Garang, with the remains of the helicopter that crashed leading to his death.

After South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, it entered a new dynamic. That turned around what to do with independence, with this new miracle of freedom. Becoming an independent country, a sovereign member of the United Nation after 2010, was indeed a miracle that only South Sudan achieved. No other country or territory succeeded despite various efforts. There are several places that are de facto independent countries, but they are not recognized by the full international community, because there is not broad agreement on the principle and on the specific case. It is important to recognize that the United States is largely responsible for the achievement of independence, because the US government supported it at the time. It is impressive that the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, still wears the hat that George W. Bush gave him. He wears it all the time, wherever he goes: to the United Nations, the African Union, wherever, as a distinctive sign of his presence

Between independence in 2011 and the last three years, Sant’Egidio’s contacts with South Sudanese leadership were not very frequent. But as it is common for Sant'Egidio, even though we had no direct role in the country’s development or in the various crises that began almost from the first moments (in 2013 and 2016), we kept channels of communication open, in various ways. That included with the local churches, especially with the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC). That is an interesting element of the situation, as the SSCC is a union of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics and other denominations. They are all part of it and they work together. I found them an interesting ally, because the SSCC seemed to be immune to the ethnic divisions that reign all over the country. That is because you have Catholic bishops from all ethnic groups, Presbyterian bishops and moderators from all ethnic groups, and so on. The South Sudan Council of Churches can be an antidote. It may not work perfectly, but it is still an antidote for ethnic divisions.

To make a very long story short, it seemed to Sant'Egidio, as it seemed to me, and all of us, that we were seeing an incredible waste of this gift of freedom and independence. The gift of this new country, that was supposed to exist so Christians could live together, with religious freedom, because such wide differences separated the north and the south of Sudan, was wasted. Because soon after independence, they started to fight each other. Ethnic divisions, hatred between tribes, even among the same tribe, overcame all the logic of living together. The divisions became more important. Of course, the problems arose because of power struggles between the Nuer (Riek Machar) and the Dinka (Salva Kiir), plus other ethnic protagonists. It is in its essence a power-sharing, a political crisis. These struggles are rooted in the past, again with the history between Salva Kiir and Machar. There were problems well before independence, even during the time of John Garang, even before the country was born or even imagined. These ancient feuds projected themselves into the new situation, into independent South Sudan, and disrupted the nation’s nation-building process.

But this is very general. We at Sant’Egidio were following developments attentively, even participating in some parts of the efforts to move forward, including the IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] led process.[1] 

When did you first get involved, personally?

About four years ago, we (at Sant’Egidio) began to have contacts with the IGAD Special Envoy, and became more involved with different actors, ranging from the government to the opposition. As we reengaged with South Sudan, the situation was as follows. The agreement in place at the time and the coalition behind it had already died. The government was a Dinka-only led politicl reality, with the Nuer on the run, with Riek Machar, their leader, going back and forth between neighboring countries, once his confinement in south Africa ended. The international community was engaged in an effort to revitalize the flagging agreement.

“Revitalize” is a key word for South Sudan. There is always talk of resuming, revitalizing, resurrecting former things that, in reality, had not worked properly in the past. At a minimum we need to appreciate some constants, some consistency within the international community here, even if we do not agree that they were effective. But at least they were consistent.

Consistent in what? In commitment to South Sudan as a nation?

Yes, as a nation and in commitment to the nation building process. I’d have to say the situation today is not very different from that in 2011. Juba is changed but in many ways it’s still not a structured capital. The state building process is far from over

So how did Sant’Egidio get involved from 2016 or so?

We began to be in contact with the different actors, both the government and SPLM-IO (Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition) [2] of Riek Machar and others. These “others” will become more and more important in my story, because most analysis of South Sudan and the crisis focuses on tensions between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the Nuer and the Dinka, the two largest ethnic groups. But these others became increasingly important from the time we were in contact with different actors and different political and military entities. We also got in touch was Machar and Kiir directly. Our relationships with President Salva Kiir dated back some years, though, at least from their side, they were not particularly positive. At various points, even immediately before independence, he had not refused to be in contact with Sant'Egidio (that would be not true), but he was not willing to work with us, that is, to use Sant'Egidio as a platform, with the possibility for dialogue or as an arena for political debate. He was simply not interested. I can say this, because we talked to him directly. He always said: "We will solve our problems. Thanks for the offer but don’t worry about us." But he expressed esteem and appreciation for our work.

It was different in relation to Riek Machar. He had been at Sant'Egidio many times. To recall some history, when negotiations between the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and the Uganda government were going on, Machar was the Envoy for Sudan, not South Sudan. During these negotiations he was in touch with Sant'Egidio. So, he knew perfectly well who we are, how we do things, and what an engagement with Sant'Egidio might involve. Thus contacts with him were established from the start.

This took place in a complex overall peacebuilding context that prevailed at the time. The international community was backing the IGAD negotiation, to revitalize the agreement that had been reached. Sant'Egidio could work in the corridors, but very much unofficially. There’s an interesting aspect here. An underlying tendency of internationally led negotiations is that they should not be disrupted or disturbed by non-sovereign actors, such as Sant'Egidio. This was clear in Central African Republic, and in other places, and it was especially evident in South Sudan. That’s true even though the negotiations were not particularly successful or rapid. There was reluctance. There had been much activity, many rounds, focused on Addis Ababa, with people joining the agreement and then leading the negotiations, with the idea of forcing Machar to go back to Juba to form a government. But things were moving very slowly.

I just want to understand what you are saying: there was a general unease about anything involving “track two”, outside official processes?

Yes, indeed. So, our involvement for South Sudan was at the time at best collateral, peripheral, definitely not center stage (not that that is our wish in any situation).

Who were the leading actors at that time?

IGAD is formally the leader of this process, representing regional or international organizations. The African Union was actually hosting the rounds of talks at their HQs. Then you had the Troika, which was following it throughout: the US, UK and Norway. They were leading but also not leading, following the process at all stages. During the last year active interest has dipped rapidly and steeply. And then you have the United Nations. They were present in complex ways. UNMISS, [3] the UN peacekeeping mission was an important focal point for humanitarian coordination, with political affairs staff, blue helmets etc. It included groups from China, Japan, and other countries. In sum, the actors and process were multipronged, multifaceted, and international process. We made it very clear to IGAD and the African Union that we were ready to help if needed. We could organize things etc.

That was the situation until three years ago.

What happened then?

Two very different things.

First of all, Pope Francis became directly involved. Pope Francis’ impact on the international scene should not be underestimated. He is keenly attentive to the peripheries of the world. When I say peripheries, I mean countries like Central African Republic and South Sudan, and especially South Sudan. The Pope’s engagement and his attention there have become legendary. He has long wanted and still wants to visit the country and, still more, to see the peace process conclude. He has talked often to different leaders on the subject.

My personal engagement began a couple of years ago, when we organized a meeting in Rome of the South Sudan Council of Churches. This takes us directly to the roles of faith based actors. We signed a memorandum with them, and worked with them to assess the situation, to see how we could boost their action. There were ten bishops from different denomination in the Sant'Egidio discussions. During their stay in Rome, the Pope received them personally. And I had the honor to accompany the bishops to the private audience with the Pope. It was a very moving moment. The Pope confirmed to this ecumenical assembly of bishops that he dearly wanted to visit the country, despite all the contrary advice he was receiving, all the people suggesting to him that he should not go. He prayed with them for peace in south soudan and thanked them for their role in the national reconciliation process.

Then a year and a half ago, the “spiritual retreat” happened, which resounded strongly in the global media. This was something that had never happened before, for any country, never in history: the Pope calling together all the actors in a crisis, assembling them, not to have a political debate but a spiritual retreat. In this way he was saying, "Okay, you are with me in a room. I will not give you a lecture on how you should run a unity government or how you should fulfill the agreement. But you should pray together with me, because this situation is unbearable for the population, it is unbearable for us Christian, because you were supposed to live together. And instead, you have been killing each other for six years." You see the significance.

Of course, this was a Holy See branded initiative with the cooperation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. All the participants were at the evening prayer of Sant'Egidio on the very evening, [4] including Riek Machar, including John Garang’s widow, who is the vice president of the country, etc., etc. Which tells you the link. We also met Salva Kiir the very day of the spiritual retreat.

So how did these different paths come together?

The two paths did come together at roughly that time. In the Rome environment, after the spiritual retreat, we were once again able to meet Salva Kiir in a different way.

But let me go back, because Salva Kiir had come to Rome even before the spiritual retreat. We had already had meetings with him there. In this Roman environment, we were able to ask him once again, "Mr. President, the IGAD led process is supposed to attain a national unity government, a transitional government (because at that time they were in a pre-transitional government). How”, we asked, “could we help you?” So now the political and faith-based paths joined together.

But there is a third part that we should add at this stage, back in 2018-2019. That is the so-called holdout groups. We were not part of the main process, but the main process forgot a lot of the protagonists. These were groups—ethnic, military, and political—that were refusing to accept the peace agreements led by the main negotiators, that is, the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, the R-ARCSS [5]  (There are so many acronyms; try to avoid this jungle!).

And who are they, these holdout groups? First, the Equatorians. The Equatorians are a large ethnic group, though not the largest or second largest in South Sudan. They are the group that is in the center of the country. Juba is located in the Equatorial region, as is Yie. The Equatorians and their parties and their protagonists, especially General Cirillo [6]  who is the leader of NAS, the National Salvation Front, which is an Equatorian based group that is fighting the government. Then you add the Shilluk [7] . And Pa'gan Amum to cite a name that everyone knows, former Secretary General of the revolutionary movement, so a hero of independence. Cirillo also was a general of the liberation movement. (All these protagonists that I am mentioning, Cirillo, Machar, with Paul Malong and Amum, were heroes of the revolution. They struggled together to reach independence. They were part of the same movement. And that spirit somehow got lost in the aftermath of independence).

We began welcoming them in Sant'Egidio after the R-ARCSS was signed in Khartoum. We could spend another half hour just asking how it happened that a meeting to solve a country’s crisis, for the Juba protagonists, was held in the capital of the former oppressor, that is, in Khartoum. We would need to explore the relationships between the current president and Khartoum and how the fall of Bashir affected the process, but that is another chapter.

So now there were the NAS and other parties, and there were also some Dinka from the same clan as the President, led by General Paul Malong Awan, who was the Chief of Staff of South Sudan, removed from his position and exiled. All these people, all these movements, refused to be part of the R-ARCSS agreement for national unity and became the so called holdout group, or, as someone called them, the non-signatories group. We were in contact with them, through visits in Addis Ababa, in Nairobi, and other countries in the region. And they started to come to Sant'Egidio.

Now, you may see where I'm going. Sant'Egidio was not part of the main process. But we had this relationship with the holdout groups. And so we could at least enter the main process through them. But this would be neither true nor honest on our part. These people organized themselves in a platform, which is called the SSOMA, South Sudan Opposition Movement Alliance. But the negotiators could not recognize them, in any way because of the “”rules of engagement” already fixed at the beginning of the process. They refused to sign when there was another label for them on the agreement. In a simple form, they did not exist. They were considered spoilers in the process. So they should be put aside while the lead negotiators worked out the agreement and implemented it. Bashir was still on board in Khartoum during the negotiations, and Bachir had fought with them for independence; most of them are generals, so they are used to fighting all the time.

IGAD tried to pressure these groups, saying they should join the agreement, full stop. But this didn't work. And the parties that formed SSOMA refused to sign, refused to join the national unity process, until at least they received official recognition. And here we saw a possibility, not to negotiate immediately between them and the government, but at least to understand the real significance of this group in the overall situation, and how to eventually open a channel that wasn't there, because international mediation was not ready to have them on board.

So we started to meet with them confidentially, and also talked confidentially to the government. Through this we saw that the government needed to bring them in the process. We spoke twice with Salva Kiir in Rome, and he told us, "Okay, absolutely let’s open this possibility for the government because it is important.” Of course, it is a strange group, SSOMA. You have people that have weight, they have forces on the ground. You have political parties that have no military forces, but political weight. And you have lesser groups.

Doing this was not easy, nor was it very fast. Sant'Egidio brought together, in Rome, the NPTC (the National Pre-Transitional Council), a sort of directorate, a steering committee for the pre-transition, made up of political actors and military, envoys of the president, religious leaders, etc. It is typical of attempts by African countries when nothing is moving forward, let’s collect all the force vives and try to brainstorm. We had them in Rome to discuss the implementation of the agreement, to discuss how to end the pre-transition. But one request from them to us was clear: help put us in contact with the holdout group, the non-signatories.

So after many months of confidential engagement, running up and down from African capitals, and having guest syndrome, we saw a clear road ahead for us: hoping and praying that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar could eventually get together in a government and the R-ACSS could be at least partially implemented. Let's work with those who are left outside: the holdouts, the non-signatories, the SSOMA group.

What was the next chapter?

After this first round, the story is more recent. In January and February 2020 (before COVID, of course). We held a meeting in Rome, with a very high level delegation from the government and all the protagonists of SSOMA. We had General Malong, General Cirillo, Pa'gan Amum, all of them. Now, with all the parties at the table, it was possible to start the process with then. And then, of course, you have all sorts ofaaaa problems coming up immediately: What are you doing? Is this simply duplicating the process? Is this another process? Who gave you the mandate to do this? How do you see this process in comparison to the IGAD led process? And so on and so forth.

Where were those questions coming from?

Everywhere. The Troika members, the United Nation, the European Union, who I should have highlighted before, colleagues from different track 2 entities, and of course IGAD. So it was two tracks for us: on one side trying to bring the South Sudan groups together and on the other trying to defend or to explain something that was not yet there to those who were already engaged, The answer to the first question was obvious. Who gave you the mandate? We had the clear request from President Salva Kiir and from the National Pre-Transitional Council, not to mention that all these SSOMA groups were already there and important.

You had a clear mandate from the government itself?

Yes. But also, and this was even more clear after the spiritual retreat with the Pope, as Christians, as partners of the South Sudan Council of Churches, we saw it as compulsory to do what we could to heal the country, amidst all the killing. So it was a political attitude but also a spiritual one for us. We must do something for a country in which Christian are killing each other. There is an ecumenical side aspect of it.

This said, explaining is not enough. You have to involve the others, you have to make every effort to be more complementary to the others. This is why we decided, in the second round of talks, to invite all those who were doing things before.

When was this second round?

The second round was in February. At the end of January there was a meeting with only the government of South Sudan and SSOMA. This led to a re-commitment to the cessation of hostilities, which was already good.

But we understood that without making this part of the already existing structure of mediation and looking specifically at next steps in that context, the progress we had made would be less effective or not effective at all. We needed to get them involved again in the process. The R-ACSS agreement is a very complicated creature, with its monitoring commission, with the participation of the neighboring countries, by the international community. It is a labyrinth of an agreement. So we decided to invite them again to Sant'Egidio, but to invite also as observer, the Special Envoy for IGAD, for example, Ambassador Ismail Wais, members of the Troika, and also UN officials and EU officials.

We faced an unusual situation and some special challenges. Sant'Egidio’s hall of peace was almost too small for the meeting. There were even more people there than there had been for Mozambique. We had a large delegation from the government, a large delegation from the rebels (the non-signatories if you like), plus the UN, EU, IGAD, the Troika, etc. This put Sant’Egidio in a complex position. We had to consult all the parties without giving them and especially the non-signatories the impression that we were dependent on them or to their favorable point of view, because we could not forget that these two sides could not get together, according to the rules of engagement of the previous negotiation and process.

SSOMA was a non-entity for the previous process and for IGAD. So, we had to overcome a number of non-confidence issues between the observers and other participants. I must say that the envoys of President Salva Kiir were very effective at all stages in overcoming the diffidence of the government and other obstacles.

What conclusions do you draw from this process?

This is sort of surfing all the events. We should put them in their correct chronological order. But I would say that this is above all a story of keeping personal relations alive, for decades, of watching with attention the international process and the crisis in the country, not forgetting the faith element in this, which is always important according to Sant’Egidio: the very name says it all. And also to find a suitable space to play a positive role in a situation that was already very crowded, and with a lot of competition. As a final point, I would say never give up. When the R-ARCSS was negotiated and not implemented when the pre-transitional government asked for the third postponement at the end of the negotiation. Well, the international community was absolutely fed up. I have been to the State Department, to meetings with the UK government, with the Norwegian government, with the European Union, and the mantra was, we do not want the agreement to fail, but it’s not the best one. Hopefully it will work out, but we are skeptical.

To be very clear. This was another enemy to fight: the pessimism, which is not an Afro-pessimism. It's a South Sudan pessimism. The leadership is problematic, but we are talking about a population of 12 million with a huge potential for development.

And then COVID happens.

Can I ask how the Vatican was involved after the spiritual retreat? Is Vatican diplomacy involved?

Yes of course, We also helped as much as we could. When the Pope called for the spiritual retreat, it was necessary to bring the leaders of South Sudan to Rome. For Salva Kiir there was no problem, as he is the president. He rented a flight, and got to Rome. But what about the others, especially Riek Machar who was in exile, under the custody of Khartoum at the time. It was necessary to pull some consular and political strings to make his visit possible, under great time pressure.

I would say that the roles are more a moral pressure than a political engagement. The Pope keeps putting moral pressure on the situation. And we do not want to be naïve here. It is not moral pressure alone that will solve the problem. But it can at least keep the eye of the world on the situation. And you can do whatever you want, but you really cannot waste this opening for zero gain.

The gesture of the Pope kneeling in front of the South Sudan leadership, which was (!) also criticized by many, is something that has never happened before.

An indirect role then throughout the process. So let’s come back toward COVID.

COVID is now a global problem when it comes to mediation, because it has simply stopped all the talks and all the meetings. Of course, we can use Skype or Zoom or Cisco or whatever you want, but it is not the same. I would say that the situation affects us particularly, because Sant'Egidio’s technique, as you know, involves so much emphasis on personal relations, meeting and seeing each other eye to eye, face to face. That’s extremely important for the trust-building process. So the COVID emergency has already affected the mediation. It also makes it almost impossible to check what is happening on the ground. That is affecting progress and there are now a number of violations. We are therefore facing the risk of losing the efforts of the meetings in Rome wasted and of course, we are fighting against the clock to avoid this.

To be honest, it is a difficult process, both institutionally and as a track two process, and the possibility that fighting will resume is always there. When there is a lack of surveillance, the more you fight the more you gain ground and you are then well placed for the jump start later. It is very difficult and we are asking for patience and calm, especially to respect the chain of command, because there are on the ground a number of brigades and command zones that do not obey orders. It is very fragmented as a situation and there are different hotspots all over the country. So far, we are trying to negotiate a local truce in in Equatoria, which is between NAS and the government of South Sudan.

What about links to the humanitarian organizations on South Sudan? I'm thinking particularly of the World Food Program, since famine is a critical issue.

We had a meeting with them here in Sant'Egidio and I am to meet WFP staff this week. We have contacts with them and also IOM, OCHA, UNHCR, etc.. We had some discussions with the humanitarian actors when we had the meetings here with SSOMA, with the government ,with the National Pre-Transitional Council. The primary focus is political. But when you see the documents that were signed, both the first to the recommitment of the cessation of hostilities, but also the Rome Declaration which focused on the monitoring mechanism, and now brings SOMAA into the process, you'll see humanitarian all over: respect them, keep the humanitarian channels open. This is also because of the contacts we have had with them all the time.

Where does things stand right now? How would you characterize the present situation on May 4th?

The present situation is, first of all, that we need a rapid implementation of the Rome Declaration, which has already started. A week ago, the Council of ministers of IGAD fully endorsed the Rome Declaration, saying that elements from SSOMA should be integrated in the monitoring mechanism at all levels. This is a big achievement, for us at least, because up to now, the monitoring mechanism would make it possible to say, it's SOMAA’s fault, and no-one from SSOMA could say, " It’s not us; it's the government." Now it should be more equilibrated. And of course, there are a lot of technical and economic issues before it becomes true. We now have a political green light, and we need to transform that into a real thing. This is on the process: priority to implement and make the Rome Declaration effective.

The paralysis of many things because of COVID is of course affecting the process itself. Because of COVID, but also because of a number of issues, we're having calls with SSOMA as a whole but also with single stakeholders of SSOMA, to assess the situation, making bridges with the government, with the presidency, and with various ministers. Note that the minister of defense of this new government is the wife of Riek Machar.

I would describe the present as a moment of fragmentation. SSOMA faces risks of fragmentation. SPLM-IO is under risk of fragmentation, because not everyone was happy with Kiir joining the government, to be honest. And even the government is trying to appoint all the governors of the ten states, and it runs the risk of fragmentation. It is a time for all the actors involved to keep focused on the main goal, which is ending the crisis and having this big stake of the non signatories which are still not part of the agreement, but now are part of the process, as an entity. We need to double our efforts.

So it's a very strong focus on the political dynamics. And meanwhile you have the refugee crisis, the IDPs, and hunger.

We are following those situations very closely. In Uganda, where there are many refugees, there are local communities of Sant'Egidio who are keeping schools open and assisting the refugees. In Ethiopia, especially in the western parts, we have a local staff of Sant'Egidio working with the humanitarian corridors, so we talk to them all the time. There is a political process, but the effects are on the ground. The humanitarian part of it is very real, especially in Uganda. I would say that we have doubled our efforts during this period, trying to respect the social distancing measures, of course.

What do you see happening in the next month?

I hope that it will be possible to have a bilateral meeting under the auspices of Sant'Egidio. I don't care if it's by Zoom or physically, most probably via Zoom or another platform, to assess together the violations of the ceasefire. Going on with mutual accusations: you did this you did that, is going nowhere. Together with the international community. We have no problem with that, but we should do it fast. Second, I would love to see the technical steps of the implementation of the Rome Declaration on the ground. I would love to see appointed representatives to the monitoring mechanisms and to see them start working together with the others. And Sant'Egidio would love to set the next agenda on how to include SSOMA fully in the nation building process. Of course, they won't immediately assume relevant positions, but the process should go on. Otherwise there will always be fights on the ground.

Let’s go back a little. How did you get involved in Sant'Egidio? About Mauro.

Mauro is a 44 year old man, but he got involved with Sant’Egidio when he was 15 years old, in high school in Rome. So it's almost 30 years. In my first year of high school, there was a group of students who went to the outskirts of Rome. I was middle class, average in everything. And a friend of mine asked me to join them in a free after school for children in difficulty. It was a few kilometers from my school, but in another world. We went from a middle class environment to the outskirts of the city, but only really few stops of the bus. And that was the beginning of everything, because I discovered a new world, far from my protected environment. I discovered that my life could matter a lot for other people, especially younger children of immigrants or children of Roma people or children with family difficulties. I joined the Youth Movement of Sant'Egidio which was a volunteer social engagement, of course, and a little bit against the grain, because a young student 15 years old is supposed to study and behave properly and not go in the outskirts. But it was good. It became, step by step, a spiritual experience as well, as I discovered what the gospel work was pushing us to do.

Then with age came maturity, and I came to understand the dream of Sant'Egidio for the world. Which is to change the world, as Saint John Paul II once told us, to have no limits apart from charity, that there is really nothing in this world that is not our concern, from Mozambique to the outskirts of Rome, to the ecumenical dialogue. This is the multifaceted aptitude of Sant'Egidio. Later I became more and more involved. Now I am the head of Sant'Egidio’s international organization. This does not mean that the question for my life have changed. How can we change the world? How can we put in practice the Gospel with a revolutionary effect?

When did you shift from the outskirts of Rome to a more international approach?

Step by step. The appetite for dialogue is embedded everywhere in Sant'Egidio, from the outskirts of a big city to the ecumenical dialogue. I of course had my personal experience. I was an archeologist for a time, I have a degree in the history of arts, nothing related to the international activity I'm running right now. I had a first series of engagements with ecumenical dialogue, especially with the Lutheran churches in Sweden and in Finland, with many friendships, traveling there continuously. When I quit the archeological part of my life, I joined the program against the death penalty, to campaign for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

Then, ten or twelve years ago now, someone asked me to join the Peace office, which, to be more precise, is the International Relations part of Sant'Egidio. I started following different situations, including Central African Republic, which has become a sort of obsession for me. I was involved there but also with South Sudan, Libya, Senegal, and so on, getting involved in relief operations. Since 2012, I have been leading this office. And here I am.

One last question Where does the involvement of Pope Francis stand now? I know there's been talk of he and the Archbishop of Canterbury visiting South Sudan at several points. Is that a live idea?

Very much alive. Of course everything is suspended now. Rumors told us two months ago that he would visit South Sudan within the year. We all know, all of us, that the Pope is keen to visit the country.

I'm fascinated by this labyrinth of negotiations and agreements, the many parties involved in a small and poor country, far away. It seems so outrageous that so many people are suffering and dying and that personalities, at least on the surface, seem to play such a large role.

It's a scandal, full stop. I mentioned the curves of attention before. South Sudan was on the top spot of that attention curve 15 years ago, especially in the United States. Everyone was talking about South Sudan. But it's always going down, never getting back to the point of 15 years ago. I still feel that, especially in your country, there is a feeling of guilt, because you pushed so hard for South Sudan’s independence. And now not only you but the whole world does not know what to do about it. And we let the awful instincts of the humankind take power. But we should never give up. There are several signs of hope.

[1]  The IGAD-led Mediation Process for South Sudan was set up by IGAD Member States in response to the crisis triggered by events of 15th December 2013 in Juba that subsequently spread to other parts of the country.

The 23rd Extra-Ordinary Summit of IGAD Heads of State and Government that convened in Nairobi on 27th December 2013 appointed three Special Envoys: Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin of Ethiopia, General Lazaro Sumbeiywo of Kenya and General Mohammed Ahmed Moustafa El Dabi of Sudan to lead the mediation process. The Special Envoys are assisted by a team of political and technical advisors that are based in a secretariat in Addis Ababa. The Mediation receives political, technical and financial support from IGAD Member States, the IGAD Secretariat, the African Union and the United Nations, as well as a broad-based support from other development partners. These include but are not limited to Australia, China, Denmark, the European Union (EU), IGAD Partners Forum (IPF), Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, the Troika (Norway, UK and USA) and Turkey.

[2] Also known as the anti-governmental forces (AGF); split from SPLM in 2013, due to political tensions between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar over leadership of the SPLM.

[3] UNMISS was established on July 8, 2011 by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1996 (2011). Since December 2016 David Shearer has headed UNMISS. In May 2019 it was composed of 15,000 military personnel, 1,800 police, and 2,800 civilian workers, with headquarters in Juba.

[4] The Community of Sant’Egidio meets each evening for a common prayer in Trastevere.

[5] Signed December 9, 2018.

[6] Thomas Cirillo Swaka, known as Cirillo, resigned as deputy chief of staff of South Sudan’s military, citing rights abuses. As the army’s most high-profile defector he has put together a force of several thousand fighters.

[7] Luo Nilotic ethnic group.