20 May 2014

South Sudan: Peace Is Possible


South Sudan can achieve peace but it must first confront its many unresolved issues head-on rather than sweep them under the carpet.

Despite the peace deal signed by President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar earlier this month, fighting in parts of South Sudan has continued.

Both sides have accused the other of breaking the ceasefire, with the army claiming that rebels launched attacks in remote regions of Jonglei and Upper Nile states as well as near the Unity state capital of Bentiu.

It was massacres in the latter that reignited international pressure this April when reports emerged of hundreds of civilians being murdered.

Bentiu has changed hands between the army and the rebels numerous times since the conflict began in December, and after rebels regained the town most recently, they are believed to have gone about killing those they suspected of supporting the government.

The brutality in Bentiu made the international community sit up and listen after attention on the crisis had partly faded away, and the UN's top humanitarian official Toby Lanzer described the massacres, fuelled by hate speech on the radio, as a "game changer." Though what happened there was not an isolated incident.

In the town of Malakal in Upper Nile state, for example, Catholic Bishop Emeritus Vincent Mojwok protected civilians in his house during two rebel takeovers.

On the third attack, however, he was persuaded to leave as it became clear that the rebels were no longer respecting churches as places of refuge and were deliberately targeting the Shilluk ethnic group.

The elderly bishop waded up to his neck in the River Nile as bullets splashed into the water around him, and then walked for days through the bush before reaching safety.

He has lived through two previous civil wars but says he has never seen anything like this before. His colleague and veteran peace-builder Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban sadly observed that South Sudan has become the place where God weeps.

Unifying the nation

It is clear to everyone except the warring parties that the fighting and killing must be stopped and humanitarian assistance be provided to the suffering people.

A million people have been forced from their homes by the ongoing conflict, aid agencies and Kiir himself have warned of an impending famine, and there are growing fears over a recent cholera outbreak in the capital Juba.

The Church is protecting civilians in its buildings and compounds, and providing aid through Caritas South Sudan, supported by sister agencies around the world such as CAFOD. But greater humanitarian access to vulnerable communities is crucial before the seasonal rains make roads impassable.

Both sides in this conflict have paid little regard to the ceasefire brokered on 23 January this year and the peace deal signed this month does not seem to have brought an end to hostilities either.

When I spoke recently to Bishop Daniel Adwok, he said that there needs to be a change of strategy if the conflict is to end. "I think a message needs to be sent to the African Union committees sitting in Addis Ababa [where the talks have been held] that the strategy of engagement with the two parties has to change in favour of civilian protection.

Too many condemnations of the atrocities committed have been voiced but people continue to die and suffer. How long will we allow this to go on?"

The roots of this conflict lie deep in unresolved issues which have not been addressed and of which there are many: the trauma of decades of previous violence; the lack of reconciliation dealing with earlier conflicts; the Sudan People's Liberation Movement's (SPLM) slow transition from a military liberation movement to a political party; weak democratic institutions; the failure to professionalise and integrate an army loosely made up of different militia, each with its own loyalties; corruption and nepotism; and, perhaps most of all, the absence of any attempt at building a shared national identity to unify the nation.

All of these issues must be addressed not just by politicians and military leaders, but by the people. This is what the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation, led by Christian and Muslim religious leaders is attempting to do.

It is working at every level, from grassroots civil society groups to the presidency, to bring about healing and reconciliation between communities.

This is the bedrock that is needed if peace is to be sustainable. Peace must also be homegrown; the international community should support and assist, but not direct nor impose.

As Pope Francis recently said, "The message of peace is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonise every diversity."

Many people see the current situation in South Sudan as hopeless, but we must remain hopeful. South Sudan is not the only country to have had a civil war shortly after becoming independent - Ireland's experience almost 100 years ago comes to mind - and what we learn from others' experiences is that unresolved issues must be confronted and worked through rather than swept under the carpet.

John Ashworth is an adviser to the Sudan and South Sudan churches. He has worked in South Sudan and Sudan for over 30 years in fields including humanitarian aid and development, eduction, justice and peace.

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