Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

Fleeing civil war, South Sudanese say national unity is a distant goal

Residents of U.N. camp, among 1 million displaced by fighting, distrust the government and fear for their safety

JUBA, South Sudan — U.N. House is a collection of drab, two-story offices and peacekeeper barracks on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan’s capital. In the days after the country’s civil conflict began, on Dec. 15 of last year, thousands of people, most of them from the Nuer ethnic group, fled their homes to seek protection at this U.N. base.

More than 10,000 people now live in a cramped grid of wood-frame and tarp shanties surrounded by barbed wire, berms, watchtowers and a narrow dry moat. As of early March, the camp had no school and a tight supply of food. The fast-approaching rainy season, meanwhile, has brought fears of diseases such as cholera and malaria.

On a muggy Saturday morning last month, the camp’s inhabitants hacked away at orange plastic pipes with handsaws, using materials intended for a new drainage system in an attempt to prop up structures that had washed out the night before. But the inhabitants fear the world outside more than they worry about what the rains will mean.

“Within the camp, they are safe,” says Edward, a Juba resident who fled his home shortly after the outbreak of fighting and now works for an international aid group in the camp. “But people have been killed on the road back to the U.N. compound. They know the government is not feeling happy with them.” (Edward declined to provide his real name because of safety concerns; others in the camp provided only their first names.)

The war pits the government, led by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), against a loose collection of mostly Nuer army defectors and militants. While the conflict is the result of dysfunctional politics, the government and the rebels have exploited existing divisions from the country’s long struggle for independence from Sudan, when the Nuer and Dinka fought over the leadership of the liberation movement. Before December, there were plans for nationwide reconciliation spearheaded by South Sudan’s religious and political leaders. Yet the concerns of the displaced people at U.N. House suggest how hard it may be to persuade some Nuer that they have nothing to fear from their government.  

When one group was defeated, a group of soldiers on patrol started shooting people who didn’t speak Dinka. I got the sense the fighting was taking a different shape.


camp resident

“The first day of fighting, we didn’t know who it was between. It was just shooting among the soldiers,” recalls Gathchang, a former merchant in his early 20s who arrived at the camp on Dec. 16. “After some hours, when one group was defeated, a group of soldiers on patrol started shooting people who didn’t speak Dinka. I got the sense the fighting was taking a different shape.”

Nyan runs a restaurant in a wood and tarp shack along the camp’s central axis; she serves bowls of fish stew for two South Sudanese pounds (roughly 50 cents) apiece. She said she sometimes goes into town for ingredients and supplies but fears being robbed or beaten, so she’s careful never to speak in Nuer. “When I’m in town, I speak only Arabic,” she says.

Young Nuer men worry that they will be suspected of participating in the armed opposition. As a result, some never leave the camp. Stories abound of Nuer men being killed or abducted by government forces between the camp and the main city. Many of those displaced by violence assume that the U.N. peacekeepers protecting the camp are their last remaining line of defense.

“I fear going into town because anybody with those marks on his face, you are Nuer and have to be killed,” says Lual, a young camp resident, pointing to parallel horizontal scars across his forehead “If there are no marks, you are asked if you can speak Dinka. Even if you speak it, if you don’t speak it well, they would shoot.”

The mistrust cuts both ways. Maria Abouk, a Dinka resident of Wonyjok, in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, lost her husband during a December battle in Malakal, a flashpoint city in Upper Nile state. He joined the liberation struggle against northern Sudanese rule in the early 1980s, accompanied SPLM leader John Garang to Ethiopia and became a first lieutenant in the army — only to be killed fighting other South Sudanese.

“He’s with God. Nobody can do anything,” Abouk says. “But it wasn’t just my husband. It’s affecting the whole country … He died trying to defend the country from people who wanted to take power by violence.”

The violence, which has killed an estimated 10,000 people and displaced more than 1 million, broke out on Dec. 15 between Nuer and Dinka cadres of an army division stationed in Juba. The next day, President Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, characterized the disturbance as a coup attempt by Riek Machar, a former vice president and a Nuer. Machar fled town and declared himself the head of a nascent violent rebellion. In Juba critics of the SPLM and its slow pace of reform were arrested, and elements of the military began killing Nuer civilians.

Nuer members of the government, meanwhile, resent the accusation that the SPLM inflamed ethnic tensions as a means of tamping down a potential rebellion. “We don’t know where this thing comes from,” Health Minister Riek Gai Kok, a Nuer, says of the outside perception of ethnic conflict in South Sudan. Some Nuer have fled into heavily Dinka areas for protection, he says, and several high-ranking members of the government and military are Nuer.

People need to forget about their tribes and focus on nationalism.

Justin Latio

Protestant minister in Juba

Peter Nyaba, the former head of South Sudan’s higher-education system and one of 13 high-ranking SPLM leaders detained by the government after Dec. 15, says he thinks the country’s ethnic rift is an extension of the ruling party’s failures of leadership. The country lost an estimated US$4 billion to corruption during its first year of independence, and Kiir fired his entire Cabinet in July of 2013 amid an intraparty power struggle.

Critics believe that the SPLM hasn’t done enough to transform itself from a militia movement to a democratic political party. “The SPLM didn’t organize and create political institutions. What we’ve always had is the military hierarchy in the SPLM,” says Nyaba. “The elite has turned against itself. It’s fighting itself because it doesn’t have a program of what to do.”

South Sudan’s dysfunctional politics has created conditions that have allowed the ethnic rifts to fester and widen, say people here. “We have not yet gelled into one nation,” says Pauline Riak, director of the Juba-based Sudd Institute, South Sudan’s first think tank. “The sociopolitical mechanisms to make us one people are not fully there.”

There were attempts underway before fighting broke out. The Committee for National Peace, Healing and Reconciliation, led by the country’s Anglican archbishop, proposed conferences in 80 towns and in each of South Sudan’s 10 state capitals, culminating in a national dialogue in Juba. Now the process is moving forward in the seven states that are still under firm government control.

“People need to forget about their tribes and focus on nationalism,” says Justin Latio, a Juba-based Protestant minister. “People need to come forward and say that we are no longer a group of tribes but a nation.”

John Ashworth, a longtime aid professional in South Sudan and an adviser to the Committee for National Peace, Healing and Reconciliation, believes this is possible. “The simplest definition of reconciliation is restoring the relationships between people,” he says. “These communities have a history of intermarriage and methods for resolving conflicts."

The country’s communities have also gotten a painful look at what can go wrong when ties between citizens and the state and among communities violently dissolve. Nyaba says the country’s current situation will provide a basis for a more responsible politics and maybe even a more peaceful future for the country at large. “Once something like this happens, people begin to question why,” he says. “That produces the kind of force that is good for the people.”

At the camp, residents are not quite as optimistic. Gathchang is less worried about the outcome of the political process than his ability to safely return to his home in the main part of Juba — something he doesn’t think he’ll be able to do before the rainy season arrives. “Sometimes the government advocates for people to leave the camp, but people are still being killed,” he says. “I’m not expecting an agreement soon. They are still killing and still fighting.”

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