Cattle paid to South Sudan families after girls died in Catholic school fire

Cows in a field Credit antb  Shutterstock antb / Shutterstock.

After a fire killed three young girls at a Catholic girls boarding school in South Sudan last month, the local Catholic diocese and state government have announced that they plan to repay the two families of the girls with 93 cows, a customary form of bereavement compensation in the country.

According to the Catholic News Agency for Africa (CANAA), the fire occurred late at night on Thursday, March 21, around 11:00. One dormitory, in which the three girls died, was badly burned and still smoldering after the fire was contained, reports said.

Hellena Amou, age 8; Deborah Angeth Dor, age 7; and Angelina Angeth Mou, age 6, died in the fire; their bodies were found in their dorms "still in the sleeping position," reports indicated, and their mattresses and furniture were badly burned. The rest of the 100 boarders at the dormitory escaped unharmed, reports said.

The fire took place at the primary boarding school at the Sacred Heart Parish, Don Bosco Mission of Tonj in the Rumbek Diocese of South Sudan. Sr. Clare Nakhumicha Wekesa, who heads the order of the Sisters of Mary of Kakamega in charge of the dormitory, was released by local authorities after being detained for a week following the incident.

While the exact cause of the fire is yet unknown, arson has not been ruled out, and local authorities have since offered the school and mission military guards for increased protection, CANAA reported.

Father Antimi Paul, a Salesian priest at the mission, told CANAA that local authorities have said that they may have "a lead in the possibility that this could as well be a deliberate attack by an arsonist."

"We are all in shock as to what could have actually caused such a destruction to such young and innocent lives," Paul said in a statement provided to CANAA. "Most of us could not sleep since (the incident). We pray for God's strength and wisdom."

According to CANAA, the Catholic news station of the diocese reported that the "Diocese of Rumbek and the government of Tonj state have agreed to pay a reparation to the two families of the three boarding girls who died as a result of fire in Tonj."

The state government will pay 62 cows, and the diocese will pay 31 cows.

The radio report said the reparition was an "out of court settlement with reference to customary law, which requires 31 herds of cattle as compensation for an unintended killing."

CANAA estimated that the cost of a cow in South Sudan would be equal to about $300 in the United States.

Robinson Odong Wani, the Education Field Coordinator for the Diocese of Rumbek, told CANAA that he was afraid that the news of the fire might negatively impact boarding school education in the area, which is often the only way girls are able to obtain an education.

Since the fire, many of the girls have gone home, CANAA reported, while the remaining girls are staying with the sisters in the convent out of safety concerns. The sisters and the priests of the mission have said they've also stayed mostly indoors since the incident. Wani told CANAA that the local community is eager for the mission to resume its regular activities, now that compensation has been settled with the families.

"At the moment all activities came to stand still, school closed, hospital closed and Sister and Priest are indoors so traumatised living in fear of revenge," he said.

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