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  • Photos by UNISFA/ 2023
  • Photos by UNISFA/ 2023

People for Peace: In pursuit of a calling to nurture young minds for peace and enable peaceful coexistence among communities in Abyei and beyond

By: Samira Y. Salifu

Father Paul Okeny is not one to shy away from challenges in his quest to serve communities. Ordained as a priest in 2001 in the Catholic Diocese of El Obeid in Sudan, he is a pioneering and renowned champion of peace in communities in Abyei, Darfur and Kordofan. He spares no effort in partnering with the United Nations to bring relief to vulnerable populations.

“My mornings and evenings are dedicated to the wellbeing of congregants. Between those times, I work as a patron of the Comboni schools in Abyei.

Serving communities here is not easy, but patience and prayers keep me going.

Whenever fighting breaks out, the first place people run to is the church, because they see it as a safe haven. However, years of conflict and suffering have meant that communities hold high and urgent expectations of the support they believe they should receive.

This is made worse by an accumulated violent disposition to challenges.

Two years ago, for instance, I was almost killed by gunmen because I was part of a Bishop Relief and Rescue committee which spearheaded peace dialogues between the feuding communities of Twic and Ngok. Nevertheless, the reconciliation of those same communities remains one of my proudest achievements.

I also believe in training young minds to choose peace. So, I take my patronage of the Comboni schools very seriously. The schools were established in the 1990s and are made up of nursery, primary and high schools.

That they are uniquely located in the contended Abyei Administrative Area between South Sudan and Sudan, make them apt for the promotion of peaceful coexistence between the Twic and Ngok people through enrolled students.

We accomplish this by securing the formal consent of parents to our strict rules and regulations, ensuring that teachers and students abide by them, and enforcing using penalties for noncompliance.

Of course, the consistent support of partners such as the United Nations help strengthen gains we make.

My partnership with the UN Started when Zambian troops were deployed to the area under the erstwhile UN Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS). The troops often visited the church to improve community relations. After some time, I started visiting their camp to say mass, and did so even after I was transferred out of the town.

These days, the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) provides water and other necessities to the community. The Mission’s Vietnamese peacekeepers, for example, are helping with the construction of classrooms for a Comboni kindergarten, while UN volunteers donate books to the local library.

Change is happening, albeit slowly. I hope the younger generation will make progress where we could not, through forgiveness and reconciliation, and recognizing that we are one people.”

For 75 years, UN peacekeepers have worked alongside international partners, community leaders and Member States to save and change lives in the world’s most fragile political and security situations. These are ordinary people striving to achieve extraordinary outcomes in often difficult and dangerous situations. They are People for Peace, and these are their stories.