Nairobi — Hollywood actor Forest Whitaker said fear of an escalation of violence was growing among South Sudanese, while speaking to refugees from the war-torn nation which the United Nations believes may be on the brink of genocide.
South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 but tensions between its different ethnic groups quickly surfaced and civil war broke out in 2013 between President Salvar Kiir's largely Dinka security forces and units loyal to his former deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer.
The fighting has driven more than 3 million people from their homes, led to widespread sexual violence and brought the nation of 11 million people close to famine.
"There is a growing concern - people are thinking the conflict will escalate again," said Whitaker, who has been on a week-long trip to Uganda and South Sudan.
"Hopefully it won't turn into a Rwanda situation," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which more than 800,000 people were killed.
The American Oscar-winning actor arrived in South Sudan on Sunday to oversee the work of his charity, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative, which aims to promote tolerance among young people.
The charity has worked in South Sudan since 2012, using sports and film screenings to teach youngsters how to mediate and overcome ethnic divisions that have fuelled the fighting.
The actor's interest in the region dates back to 2006, when he met Ugandan former child soldiers while filming "The Last King of Scotland", in which he played the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin - a role that earned him an Academy Award for best actor.
Last week, Whitaker visited South Sudanese refugees who had fled to Kiryandongo camp in Uganda, where he plans to start a peace-building project in March for young people.
Teenage girls told him their families were not allowing them to go to school in the camp, instead forcing them to do household chores.
"There are people having struggles, feeling hopeless because of the conflict, not being able to know who to trust," the 55-year-old American actor said in a phone interview.
"It became quite emotional."
Despite the massive challenges in South Sudan where most people are illiterate, six in 10 children do not go to school and culture often glorifies war, Whitaker said his programmes have helped to make a difference.
"Some of our youths have even negotiated for the army to move out of schools and for the children to come back," he said.
"They could help to shape the world into a place where they have ... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he added.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)