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South Sudan takes steps to curb violence, but still faces major challenges

The government of South Sudan has recently taken laudable steps to halt killings and human rights abuses by members of the armed forces, but South Sudan’s people still face multiple threats from inter-ethnic tensions, entrenched patterns of violence, natural disasters and conflict in neighboring Sudan. 

South Sudan became an independent country on July 9, 2011, following a referendum in which its people overwhelmingly voted to separate from Sudan.  The referendum, agreed under a 2005 peace deal with Sudan, ended decades of civil war, but the young nation continues to be destabilized by conflict.

Over the past two years inter-communal violence, primarily among the Nuer and Murle, has destabilized South Sudan’s western Jonglei State, causing massive displacement. The two ethnic groups, both predominately Presbyterian, have been at odds for more than 50 years. The ethnic rivalries were exacerbated by the 1983-2005 war with Khartoum, which armed both communities and pitted them against each other.

Since the beginning of 2013 the South Sudanese government’s campaign to disarm rebel forces led by David Yau Yau has increased the insecurity in Jonglei State. Clashes between the South Sudan military (SPLA) and Yau Yau’s insurgents have inflicted heavy losses on both sides. The fighting has also taken a heavy toll on the civilian population.  Hundreds of residents, mostly people of Murle heritage, have been caught in the crossfire or have been targeted by SPLA soldiers prone to suspect locals of being sympathetic to the rebels. The six main towns in Pibor County have been abandoned. Women and children have been especially vulnerable. 72 unaccompanied Murle children have been found hiding in the bush. "We were being killed by the SPLA soldiers,” said one woman. “Women go to collect firewood and they are raped and killed.  That is why I had to leave Pibor."

More than 100,000 Jonglei residents have been displaced since the start of 2013; many have sought refuge either in neighboring countries or in the capital city of Juba. Survivors have been severely traumatized. Anger and hurt often fuels a desire for revenge, which only perpetuates the conflict. "There is no one to see that justice is done, so the only alternative is revenge,” lamented one Murle elder. “But thousands of people are dying.... Revenge will not solve anything.  Our voice is not heard.  We need the international community to understand, we need a mediator."

South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, is facing growing international pressure to intervene to halt the violence.  In July 2013 he fired Vice-President Riek Macher and virtually all of his cabinet, a move that some commentators saw as an attempt to stifle dissent and ensure loyalty.  However, on August 21 South Sudanese authorities arrested a dozen high-ranking SPLA officers, including Brigadier General James Otong, on charges that troops under their command played a role in the killing of innocent civilians in Jonglei state. President Obama has signaled the United State’s concern for the region by appointing Ambassador Donald Booth, an experienced diplomat, to serve as a Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.

Meanwhile to the north, fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces—Sudan’s national army—and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states has forced more than 220,000 people to flee across the border into South Sudan’s Upper Nile and Unity states. Overcrowding, disease, flooding and limited funding have obstructed aid agencies attempting to care for these refugees. The ongoing rainy season—which has already rendered 65 percent of South Sudan’s roads impassable—will make aid delivery even harder for several months to come.

Close to 2 million South Sudanese have returned home since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which cleared the way for independence.  The ongoing conflict, high food prices, and large numbers of returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) have led to deterioration in the country’s food security. In the contested Abyei region, the mass return of IDPs following increased security has led to food security concerns, while the large number of returnees from Sudan has also put pressure on available food stocks.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO), an estimated 1.15 million people are expected to face food shortages during the current rainy season. In March the UN World Food Program (WFP) estimated that some 4.1 million South Sudanese people would be food insecure in 2013.  More than half of Jonglei State’s population are expected to face moderate to severe food shortages. By late August more than 74,000 people in Pibor County alone had been registered with aid agencies to receive food aid.

Please:
• Pray for healing for the people of South Sudan, that they may recover from trauma, break the cycle of violence, and promote reconciliation and peacebuilding.
• Pray that the Government of South Sudan will be able to put an end to the violence in Jonglei State, enabling survivors to return to their homes.
• Learn more about the situation in South Sudan. See World Mission's South Sudan website and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations’ “Swords into Plowshares” blog for more resources.
• Write to your members of Congress and the Secretary of State to share your concern for the safety of the people of Jonglei State.  The PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness can offer further resources for advocacy.
• Join the Sudan Advocacy Action Forum to advocate for peace and justice in Sudan and South Sudan.
• Give generously to help support the work of the PC(USA)’s mission personnel and global partners. Contributions can be sent to ECO #E052032 Resource Center for Civil Leadership (RECONCILE). 

30 August 2013

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