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“I have seen people being forced to eat other humans.” This paralyzing testimony is part of the compilation of horrors that the African Union released in October of 2015, awakening the world to the nightmarish reality of South Sudan’s civil war. The political-feud-turned-ethnic-carnage claimed over 50,000 lives and displaced 1.6 million people before the signing of a trembling, internationally-imposed peace agreement in August 2015. Entire villages were exterminated in cold blood, civilians were burnt alive, and gang rape ensued in a landscape that featured some of the worst monstrosities in Africa since the Rwandan genocide.

Cannibalism is a tradition amongst certain Dinkas, whilst severely criticized by other tribes. Forcing Nuer prisoners to eat their fellow victims is a macabre illustration of the inextricability of their tribal hatred. However, the words of a displaced man to The Washington Post  give us another explanation of the conflict that might be more accurate: “Different communities are connected. Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, Bari cannot be differentiated. The crisis is political. They put a knife into what bound us, turned the crisis from political to ethnic.”

Conflicts between ethnicities have abounded in South Sudan since ancient times. What makes the present confrontation different is that land disputes and cattle-raids in the past were between any of the 52 clans cohabiting the young country, not just the two predominant communities that are at the centre of South Sudan’s civil war.  In old quarrels, participants abided by strong war ethics that protected civilians and deserters. In contrast, the recent butchery seems to stem from a failure to manage diversity —or rather a very successful effort to inflame it.

Ganyiel, Unity State, South Sudan, April 21 2014: Rebbecca Nyaknme fled the fighting in Bentiu together with her family. Only her and two children arrived after they were separated from the husband and the other two children. Rebbecca and the two children live in simple straw huts on the outskirts of Ganyiel. Having lost everything they own, they arrived in Ganyiel empty-handed. Their survival relies on foreign aid, and without emergency food they will starve. Source: World Humanitarian Summit, Flickr
Ganyiel, Unity State, South Sudan, April 21 2014: Rebbecca Nyaknme fled the fighting in Bentiu together with her family. Only her and two children arrived after they were separated from the husband and the other two children. Rebbecca and the two children live in simple straw huts on the outskirts of Ganyiel. Having lost everything they own, they arrived in Ganyiel empty-handed. Their survival relies on foreign aid, and without emergency food they will starve. Source: World Humanitarian Summit, Flickr

Political will has inflicted unbearable trauma and famine on an already all-too-fragile state. As democratically elected officials (the fairness of said elections questionable as might be), President Salva Kiir and ex-Vice President and insurgency commander Riek Machar owed it to their people to resolve their discrepancies in a peaceful and rapid manner, preserving stability and leaving room for South Sudan’s most pressing difficulties. In rejecting to do so, they’ve adhered to the list of leaders that treat their nations as their property, and have let the volatility of their emotions govern the fate of millions of citizens.

On April 26, after Machar returned to Juba to begin the political transition projected in the peace agreement, President Salva Kiir declared in a speech: “Our apologies to the people of South Sudan for the situation we, the leaders, have created.” However, their conviviality didn’t last for long. The fighting reignited on July 7, on the eve of the country’s fifth anniversary, when clashes in the capital city left 5 government soldiers dead. The confrontations took place in front of the Presidential Palace, where the President and Vice Presidents (Machar and Igga) were gathered to discuss the recent events. In a joint news conference, they claimed to be unable to explain what was happening.

President Salva Kiir, right. Rebel leader and former VP, Riek Machar, left. Source: Day Donaldson, the Speaker. Flickr.
President Salva Kiir, right. Rebel leader and former VP, Riek Machar, left. Source: Day Donaldson, the Speaker. Flickr.

The violent strife between rival forces resulted in over 300 casualties. On July 11, Machar fled Juba. His last political action was firing the mining Minister, General Taban Den Gai, from the opposition party, accusing him of taking part in a conspiracy against him and of “defecting” to the Government party of President Salva Kiir. The President gave him a 48-hour ultimatum to return to Juba. The rebel leader’s spokesman announced that Machar feared for his life and wouldn’t come out of hiding until the presence of neutral third-party forces guaranteed his safety. Soon after, President Salva Kiir selected the recently dismissed rebel Minister, Taban Den Gai, as his new Vice President.

The appointment of General Taban was perceived as a provocation by Machar’s supporters. It caused uproar among the rebel ranks, creating two different factions. It outraged Machar, who deemed the appointment “illegal”. His Spokesman, James Dak, told the Nation: “There is only one Commander-in-Chief of the SPLM/A-IO and that is Dr Riek Machar. Deng Gai has no control over the forces of the SPLM/A-IO and 95 per cent of leaders in the party support Dr Machar.” The UN also expressed their concerns about the legitimacy of the replacement of Dr. Machar as Vice President: “Any political appointments need to be consistent with the provisions outlined in the peace agreement,” they warned. The peace agreement states that any replacement of the First VP during the transitional period must be approved by the opposition leadership.

Silent protest in the Protection of Civilians site in Malakal on February 26, 2016. They demanded accountability for the international community’s failure to protect civilians effectively. Source: World Humanitarian Summit, Flickr.
Silent protest in the Protection of Civilians site in Malakal on February 26, 2016. They demanded accountability for the international community’s failure to protect civilians effectively. Source: World Humanitarian Summit, Flickr.

Each day that the peace agreement is not fully implemented is a day that South Sudanese population sinks more acutely into death and starvation. This fact not only epitomizes the shameful selfishness of its rulers, but also stresses the need for a cost-benefit consideration when facing the crucial peace vs. justice dilemma. Any effort of holding accountability may jeopardize the transitional process. Justice isn’t such if it damages those it attempts to serve, and in this case peace is an absolute priority.

The rise of local attempts of reconciliation, that led to a relative cessation of violence in the areas, stand out as the only weapon for the powerless to defend themselves against an arbitrary protraction of the war in South Sudan and similar scenarios. In the form of truth commissions, the traditional gacaca courts that were employed in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, or community conference fora like those held in Wunlit, Bor and Tonj North, these measures can be effective in solving the internal disputes that nourish the conflict, strengthening community ties and countering the dehumanized view of the rival ethnicity built by the war. Paired with other uplifting initiatives like the Nonviolent Peace Force (NGO that trains civilians to act peacefully as peacekeepers), grassroots peace-building is the sole resort for the civil society to take control of their destiny and, hopefully, bring closure and permanent pacification to their communities.

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