It’s been almost a year since violence broke out in Juba between presidential guards loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers who back former vice president Riek Machar. In just a short week, the unrest spread up to Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states. Over 10,000 people have been killed and more than 90,000 fled their homes, seeking shelter in UN camps and in neighboring countries, including Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
The unrest was, in the beginning, spurred by a political power struggle within the ruling SPLM party. As a result of the conflict, basic infrastructure has been destroyed around the country and civilian lives have been taken, even when they were sheltering inside church buildings in Bor, Bentiu and Malakal, the capitals of the three states most impacted by the fighting.
Yet more civilians were killed as they layin hospital beds. The conflict quickly took on ethnic overtones, pitting supporters of Kiir, who is from the Dinka tribe, against those of Machar, who is a Nuer. Kiir has denied that the conflict has ever been tribal, but former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who heads an African Union commission that is investigating human rights abuses committed during the fighting in South Sudan, told a United Nations commission that it did, in fact, “quickly degenerated into an ethnic conflict…”
Regional organizations like the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) have condemned the conflict and are working with the two warring sides to try to end it as soon as possible. But, so far, their efforts have come to nought: a cessation of hostilities agreement was violated within hours of being signed in January, and recommitals to the agreement by Kiir and Machar have been ignored by both sides.
This conflict has destroyed the seed of hope that was planted in the hearts of South Sudanese citizens when the country became an independent — and the world’s newest — nation on July 9, 2011. –Independence came only after a long civil war with Sudan that cost millions of lives. When South Sudan was born in 2011, the new country’s flag was flying all over the country and people celebrated and credited the SPLM/A with helping the people of South Sudan to achieve their dearly paid dream. Independence opened the door for the country to welcome outside investors, many of whom pledged to work and develop the new country. But then came the conflict and many investors and developmental organizations ceased operations in the country, even though the needs of South Sudanese are still as acute as ever.
In April this year, I interviewed Moses Deng Bol, the bishop of the Episcopal Church in Wau. He had just concluded a pastoral visit to some parts of South Sudan that have been affected by war. One of my questions to him was: How do you feel now when you travel to other countries and they come to know that you are South Sudanese? Without hesitation, he said, “I feel ashamed.”
Feelings of shame are not reserved only for the bishop. Nor is shame the only negative emotion that many South Sudanese are feeling these days. Many people across the globe think that South Sudanese like fighting. But I can say we do not. We see fighting as just one of the problems that we have.
The warring sides have been holding peace talks in Addis Ababa for months now. We South Sudanese hope to one day see white smoke, like a papal election, coming from Addis soon.
If and when the warring parties reach a peace deal, a new page will open for South Sudan – or at least that is what the people hope for now. South Sudanese are tired of running, tired of fleeing violence, tired of worrying if they will ever see their homes or loved ones again, tired of being unable to send their kids to school because the school has been destroyed, is occupied or the teachers have all fled. It’s time for South Sudan’s leaders to give their people – the people who elected them – some respite from the violence and an opportunity to build our lives and our country. We need basic services; we need food; we need decent health care. But above all we need hope and leaders who are truly committed to giving it to us.