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Building bridges between South Sudan’s Dinka and Nuer tribes in Uganda’s refugee camps

RECONCILE International brings a message of peace

By the Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather, mission co-worker in South Sudan

Fighting between South Sudanese young adults in a Ugandan refugee camp led the United Nations to move their two communities apart. RECONCILE was asked to bring them back together to help heal their relationship. (Photo by the Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather)

OXFORD, England — “The weight is on whom?” the Rev. Peter Tibi, executive director of RECONCILE International, asked those gathered at a church in Uganda’s Omugo Refugee Camp.

“Who is suffering?” he continued, pointing to a triangle drawn on white flip chart paper.  The top of the diagram listed the names of the highest political leaders in South Sudan. The middle section represented bishops, church leaders and mid-level government positions. The bottom, he told them, symbolized “you, you, you, you and you.”

The Resource Center for Civil Leadership (RECONCILE International) is a grassroots nongovernmental organization in South Sudan. It aims to contribute to nation-building by equipping communities with knowledge and skills for peacebuilding through trauma recovery, civic education and advocacy.

Pointing to the 70-plus members of the group sitting on plastic chairs with their feet resting on a dirt floor, Tibi told those gathered, “The weight of the political conflict rests on you … If you want to solve the problem at the top, you have to start at the bottom.  If the political leaders call you and tell you to fight, and you say ‘no,’ do they have any force?  Can they do anything?”

The triangle illustration was a response to the concern that the ongoing rivalry between President Salva Kiir (from the Dinka ethnic group) and Vice President Riek Machar (from the Nuer ethnic group) continues to cause fighting among South Sudanese at the community level.

After Tibi addressed this matter, a woman stood up and said, “The people at the top are not our people. We deny them, because they are not suffering in the refugee camp with us …” Another woman said, “If God has sent you (Tibi) to reconcile us (a Nuer community) with the Dinkas, why don’t we accept, so we can get the blessings?”

Her words brought the room to a silent pause.

In 2018, a young man left his seat in a crowded hall broadcasting the World Cup in Uganda’s Tika refugee camp.  Another man, from a different ethnic group, sat down in the empty chair. When the first man returned, he demanded his seat. Hate speech and threats lead to weapons. Lives were lost. The chair simply served as a trigger to reveal deeper conflict.

“When the conflict started while watching the World Cup football match, were the top political leaders there?  Did they come to the refugee camp?” asked Tibi. The question was not meant to be answered. Everyone knew the response was “no.”

The UN responded to the tragic incident by relocating one ethnic group from Tika to the distant Omugo camp. Later, RECONCILE was asked to facilitate a path toward peaceful co-existence.

“We don’t expect that the UN will put the two communities back together,” one RECONCILE staff explained to the gathering, “but that you will feel free to visit one another and eat together. There is intermarriage between these communities. You should be able to visit your relatives without fear.”

A few months prior to the meeting in Omugo, RECONCILE traveled to Tika to meet with the Dinka community involved in the conflict. The people in Tika agreed to reconcile with the forcibly removed Nuer community. The next step will be to bring leaders from both communities to a neutral place to discuss what took place, to agree upon justice, offer forgiveness and heal the broken relationship between the communities.

A young man in the crowd asked if a meeting might just be a way to ambush and get revenge, acknowledging that in the conflict the Nuer killed more Dinka.

The two-day gathering calmed fears, concluding with a commitment to inter-community dialogue.  Then RECONCILE took the message two hours down the road and delivered it to a group of Dinka community members who were also gathered under the roof of a camp church.

“You came with a good message today,” an elder responded.  “I am very happy you have come with a message of peace …  We came here (to the camps) because we did not want to fight … It is not we who fight in South Sudan, it is the government with the rebels, it is not the Dinka against the Nuer … but we cannot reconcile ourselves unless someone comes in between us, so it is very good that you have come.”

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