A return to South Sudan, a return to conflict

01 Dec 2014  In this blog Rens Willems, research fellow with UPEACE The Hague, reflects on his visit to Juba, South Sudan, from 3 to 7 November 2014.

Nile river in Juba
The Juba heat instantly greets me as I walk down the tarmac from the airplane to the arrivals hall. After getting my passport stamped, the chaotic process of collecting my luggage begins – a process that is not helped by the fact that another passenger plane arrived at the same time. After all luggage is off-loaded from the plane, it is piled in front of the only x-ray machine in the arrival hall. Security personnel process it through the machine, with the checked luggage piling up at the other side of it. A swirling mass of arriving passengers forms around this pile, as people attempt to collect their luggage, check whether their luggage is already on the pile, or try to position themselves in an advantageous position for when it arrives. After finally obtaining my luggage, I fight the current of the swirling mass to a desk, where security personnel manually check all luggage a second time. Presumably, the introduction of the x-ray machine was welcomed as long as it did not result in a loss of jobs of the people who had been checking luggage before, and hence continue to do so. Once my bag is marked as checked, I walk out to see Juba for the first time in three years.

 Aerial view of Juba in 2008 ©Rens Willems
Aerial view of Juba in 2008 ©Rens Willems


After having spent quite some time working in and on South Sudan since 2008, I last visited the country shortly after its independence in 2011. I stayed in touch with a number of people and continued to follow the developments, but I’m glad to finally be able to go back. Not only is traveling one of the perks of the job, I also believe that you cannot understand conflict and peace from work behind a desk alone. The reason for my visit is the start of a two-year research project on the intersections of truth, justice and reconciliation in the context of conflict in South Sudan. The project is undertaken in cooperation with the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS) and PAX, and we have several meetings and a workshop scheduled to discuss our plans for the two years to come.

 

The airport and the chaotic process of luggage collection have not changed at all since the last time I visited South Sudan. And the new airport building next to the old one is – at least visually – still in the same stage of construction as it was a few years ago. But for the rest, Juba has changed quite a lot. There are more and better roads, and much more buildings. The hotel where I stayed, which previously was primarily visited by western expats, is now also being frequented by South Sudanese middle class. From the view of Juba, since the independence of South Sudan, there has clearly been development.

Street view of Juba in 2014 ©Rens Willems
Street view of Juba in 2014 ©Rens Willems

At the same time, this gives a distorted view of the situation. South Sudan is, again, a country at war after fighting erupted between elements of the presidential guard in December 2013. The events followed a period of political turmoil among the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), South Sudan’s ruling party. In July 2013, President Salva Kiir had amongst others replaced Vice-President Riek Machar and most members of the cabinet. Quickly after the fighting erupted, Kiir accused Machar of a coup attempt. Machar denied, accusing Kiir of premeditating the alleged coup in order to get rid of his opponents and reaffirm his control of government. Nonetheless, Machar declared himself leader of the SPLM-in Opposition (SPLM-iO) and the armed struggle against the government.

 

The fighting amongst the presidential guard quickly spreads to other military barracks in Juba, then into civilian neighbourhoods, and later also to barracks and cities elsewhere in the country. The fighting also gets an ethnic overtone, as Kiir is a Dinka – South Sudan’s largest ethnic group – and Machar a Nuer – the country’s second largest ethnic group. The SPLA – the national army – disintegrates, with various factions defecting to the armed opposition in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile States. The capitals of these states quickly fall to opposition forces, and have since then changed hands several times. Various reports indicate targeted arrests and killings of Nuer in Juba in December 2013, and revenge killings between the two groups elsewhere in the country since. At the time of writing, several cease-fire agreements have been signed, and broken, and negotiations between the government and rebels are ongoing.

 

The relative calm in Juba, with business continuing as usual, can be taken as a sign of people’s resilience and drive to continue with their lives. Yet, the calmness is also deceiving. Most Nuer have fled the city, and many of their houses have been occupied by others. Continued fighting has affected at least one-third of the country, thousands have died and more than a million people have been displaced. Many also fear that the nearing dry season – allowing for easier movement of troops – will intensify the fighting.

Sunrise in Juba behind a building being constructed ©Rens Willems (2014)
Sunrise in Juba behind a building being constructed ©Rens Willems (2014)

The current situation in South Sudan may raise questions as to whether this is the right moment for a research project on truth, justice and reconciliation. Is it not too early to talk about these issues? And is the subject not too sensitive now that the wounds are so fresh – even still being made?

 

Yet, it is exactly these wounds that continue to contribute to further conflict. The split within the SPLA follows similar lines as in 1991, when Machar and others fought against the SPLA, then led by the late John Garang. And in attempts to mobilize people since December 2013, people were reminded of events like the “Bor Massacre” of 1991, where Machar is considered to have been responsible for the killing of thousands of Dinka civilians in the town of Bor. Because sadly, the fighting between groups in South Sudan is nothing new. Despite the fact that the South has experienced war with the government of Sudan in Khartoum for half a century, only to gain independence in 2011, more people have died as a result of internal fighting within the South. And these unresolved grievances between different identity groups have fuelled the current crisis.

 

Further complicating matters, is the culture of cattle rustling among the pastoralist groups of South Sudan, including the Dinka and Nuer. Influenced by decades of divisive politics during the civil war, combat experience and the introduction of modern weaponry, cattle rustling practices have become increasingly lethal. The decades of war have also affected the capacity of traditional mechanisms for dealing with violence and conflict. Combined with a weak state justice system, people’s access to viable justice mechanisms is therefore limited. And when people do not have viable justice options, they are more likely to take matters into their own hands. The cycles of revenge killings and cattle raids between communities are sad evidence of this. In this context, a criminal case resulting in revenge attacks can quickly turn into an inter-group conflict.

 

The research project therefore comes at a critical moment. An end to the ongoing violence requires a political agreement between the warring parties. But such an agreement is only the beginning of a long process of resolving grievances between communities and strengthening justice mechanisms to deal with violence. Rather than focusing on either crime-related violence or conflict-related violence, the research project therefore looks at violent experiences in South Sudan in a holistic manner. The project will investigate people’s experiences and needs regarding truth, justice and reconciliation and examine the strengths and weaknesses of existing justice and reconciliation mechanisms. Ultimately, the goal is to uncover existing and potential opportunities for truth, justice and reconciliation, and to see where reforms can bring justice services into greater conformity with the needs of the people of South Sudan.

 

The workshop we organised in Juba to discuss the project with representatives of civil society organisations sparked a lively debate. This showed us that despite the sensitivity of subjects like truth and justice, there is a great willingness and desire to discuss them. The many diverging opinions among the participants also underlined the complexity of the topic, and that there are no quick fixes for the conflicts and violence in South Sudan. Yet, in the face of the slow-moving and uncertain peace negotiations and reports of gruesome war crimes being committed, people continue to see possibilities. One of the participants reflected on a recent training on reconciliation, where people from all over South Sudan had come together. “It was one of those moments where you see that we can celebrate our diversity. So it is possible to join together, and we should not lose hope for peace and stability. I am old, and it might not be in my generation anymore. But it is certainly possible, and we need to work on it for the generations to come.”

 

The project team will undertake the first research activities in the coming months, on the basis of which we will develop a survey to gauge people’s justice experiences and needs. I expect to return to South Sudan to pilot the survey in May 2015.

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