The Year that was For South Sudanese

Picture courtesy of Care. South Sudanese Internally Displaced Persons at UN Protection Of Civilian Sites in Malakal, Upper Nile state.

The conflict in South Sudan started as a political dispute but quickly took on a different dimension and direction. Many people, including those involved in the fighting, did not realize the fluid nature of the conflict and how quickly it would spread and take different forms. They certainly underestimated the extent of the divisions, hatred and damage the fighting would cause the country.
The United Nations Missions in South Sudan (UNMISS) said early on that more than 10,000 people were killed. Since then, NGOs have said the number of dead is believed to be in the tens of thousands. More than two million people have been displaced by the fighting.
The conflict is now in its 15th month. The damage has been done. Let’s stop bickering over who started the fighting and over individual interests, and look at the bigger picture: the nation that South Sudanese have been fighting for, for decades.
We were completely overwhelmed with joy and pride when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed at the beginning of 2005, paving the way for a referendum on whether we wanted to remain part of Sudan (whom we fought for more than 20 years) or become our own country. We chose the latter. We felt we now belonged in the family of nations. We had a national anthem, a flag, national identification documents with our name and the name of our country on them. Nothing grants refugees, internally displaced persons and people suffering in their own land much more pride.
However, that pride, joy and hope were short-lived.
This latest conflict has done more harm than we can imagine. We have now become our own enemies. Reverend Bernard Suwa, who serves in the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation in South Sudan, says the depth and scope of anger and division run very deep in South Sudan, as do mistrust, suspicion of “the other” and fragmentation within South Sudanese communities.
Talks to end nearly 15 months of conflict have yielded little. Yes, there was a cessation of hostilities deal signed in January last year, but it was violated almost as soon as it was signed by President Salva Kiir and rebel chief Riek Machar. After that, the two men recommitted to the cessation of hostilities deal several times, but each time, violence followed hard on the heels of their vows to bring peace to South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional body mediating the talks, and the international community have threatened the parties with sanctions if no peace deal is reached by March 5 at what IGAD’s lead mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, has called the last chance peace talks for South Sudan.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent, non-profit organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict across the world, recently said in a report that outsiders have had little success in mediating south-south conflict over the decades. The ICG report says the most transformative peace agreements have been led by people involved in the conflict themselves. The ICG’s advice to the warring parties in South Sudan is to encourage wider dialogue within affected communities and launch local peace initiatives that would be linked with the IGAD-led talks in Ethiopia.
ICG also advocates for religious and traditional leaders to be included in peace talks for South Sudan, because, it says, they wield influence, are relatively independent of military leaders and are important barometers of communities’ willingness and ability to implement agreements. This suggestion has not gone down well with either side.
When the fighting ends (I’m being positive), we need to hold accountable those who committed horrendous atrocities against the people of South Sudan. This is a key first step toward much-needed reconciliation.
South Sudanese civil society activist Don Bosco Malish says that for genuine reconciliation to happen, there must be one party that is willing to accept responsibility. He says reconciliation is a long-term process, but it is possible.
The clock is ticking for South Sudan. Millions of South Sudanese continue to suffer the effects of war. It is during such times that a leader or leaders should emerge and take charge. We need someone, singular or plural, who can show compassion for the suffering of the people and be strong enough to make tough and bold decisions. That is in no way a sign of weakness or stupidity but a positive insight for future generations.
Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher and poet, once said “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”
Our leaders should also borrow a leaf from this famous African saying: “Milk and honey have different colors, but they share the same house peacefully.”

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