News & Commentary

South Sudan bishop urges government to find missing priest, driver dead or alive

Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, Southern Sudan, delivers the homily during Mass at Old Mission Santa Barbara in California Oct. 13, 2019. Since the May 19, 2024, disappearance of Father Luke Yugue, who ministers in the diocese, and his driver Michael Gbeko, government authorities have not given concrete information about the condition of the men, according to Bishop Kussala. (OSV News photo/Octavio Duran)

NAIROBI, Kenya (OSV News) — As a South Sudanese bishop planned a memorial Mass for a priest and driver who went missing in late April, he demanded the authorities find the men dead or alive.

Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio said since the disappearance of Father Luke Yugue and his driver Michael Gbeko, the authorities had not given concrete information about the condition of the men.

“The government has taken too long to come forward with any information about the priest. This is my frustration. I am annoyed and upset,” Bishop Kussala told OSV News. “I want them to get my priest back.”

At the same time, the bishop said those who allegedly “kidnapped” the two did not reach out to the diocese or the bishop with any demands or ask for any ransom. Neither body has been found.

On May 19, the bishop told a Pentecost Mass gathering in Tombura, where the priest worked, that as he called out to find Father Yugue and his driver, the call was the same for all the people of Tombura who had gone missing. “Find them and together build stable peace here,” he said in his homily, urging the government officials to help.

With the general view among the faithful that their priest has been missing for too long, the diocese will hold a May 25 memorial Mass but hopes the body of the priest, who has been active in his community and is known for being involved in opening schools and hospitals, will be found.

Initially planned for May 17-18, the diocese moved the memorial service to after Pentecost. The diocese also had hoped to receive crucial information about the priest and the driver from the government security unit but was unsuccessful.

“We will be praying if they are dead that the Lord receives them, and if they are alive, that they be protected,” said Bishop Kussala, adding that rumors were spreading the two have been killed.

County Commissioner Matthew Mabenge suspects this is the case. In a May 1 statement sent to Bishop Kussala, he said, “According to my observation, they aren’t alive because such has happened several times … this seems to be the same scenario.”

Father Yugue went missing April 27 while traveling between Nagero County and Tombura County, where he has been serving the people. He had left Nagero in the middle of the day on a motorbike with his driver, but an hour later, the diocese lost contact with them.

On April 28, Bishop Kussala wrote to the government of Nagero asking the authorities to find the priest and his driver and take them to the church.

With no response, on April 29 he wrote to the country’s president, Salva Kiir Mayadit, asking him to bring the priest alive to the church. He asked the head of state to impose a state of emergency in Tombura due to increasing insecurity.

On May 1, Gabriel Mbolo, commissioner of Nagero County, released his own statement on the issue. He said when the priest visited his offices prior to the tragic trip, Father Yugue looked “very sad, miserable, desperate and confused” upon consulting the commissioner on the security of the trip and hearing warnings it would not be secure to travel to Tombura communities.

The commissioner praised the priest’s efforts to help refugees in South Sudan’s region tormented by multiple crises, including ongoing war in neighboring Sudan and subsequent poverty and refugee crisis.

“During all these crises, this is the only father who offer(s) himself to help the communities of Nagero County,” said Mbolo, calling for the release of the priest and his driver.

According to the bishop, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition controls the area where the two went missing. The force of the party and the army, led by Vice President Riek Machar Teny, has been fighting with the government troops and causing a lot of disturbances in the area, according to Bishop Kussala.

The conflict in the region has been taking an ethnic dimension between Azande and Balanda communities.

The commissioner of the region strongly condemned “these human right abuses … and barbaric culture which in the past have never existed in our life histories.”

The priest may have been caught up in ethnic and politically linked wave of kidnappings and revenge, since he did not belong to either of the tribes.

“Let us unite. Tribes will take us nowhere. It has no meaning. We are all made up of one body,” Bishop Kussala said at the May 19 Pentecost celebration in Tombura.

By Fredrick Nzwili | OSV News