South Sudan’s conflict has devastated communities and polarised society and, unless the root causes of the conflict are addressed now, the world’s youngest country may find itself once more in crisis, experts said during a recent debate organised by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The government and rebels signed a ceasefire on Jan. 23 to end more than five weeks of fighting that brought the country to the brink of civil war. More than half a million people have been displaced and thousands killed in the conflict between government troops and rebels backing former vice president Riek Machar.
One of the most damaging aspects of the conflict is the impact it has had on the country’s ability to build lasting peace, David Deng, research director of the South Sudan Law Society in Juba, said.
“Friends and former colleagues have become enemies. The situation is very polarised. Those of us in the middle risk becoming the enemy of both sides,” Deng said.
Only a carefully designed and well-resourced process of truth, justice and reconciliation can begin to heal these wounds, he added.
Deng was one of six panellists from Juba, London and Geneva who discussed the impact of the conflict on South Sudan’s future, the root causes of the violence, the role of the international community, and whether bringing perpetrators of abuses to justice will do more harm than good.
Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, said the violence created a cycle of revenge and fear. What’s needed is a longer term process to address the root causes of the conflict, she said.
“Critical issues identified back in 2005 are still unaddressed,” she said, referring to the year a peace deal was signed which ended a 21-year civil war between Khartoum and southern Sudanese rebels. The peace deal paved the way for South Sudan to separate from the rest of Sudan in 2011.
The issues include the alienation of the youth and tensions over access to water and land. These were exacerbated by the poor reintegration of demobilised soldiers after the north-south civil war, and the large-scale return of Southern Sudanese from Khartoum and abroad since 2005.
“These issues have ended up being a fertile ground for today’s political rivalry to spiral into a widespread conflict,” Pantuliano said.
MANY WITHOUT FOOD, MEDICAL AID
Nearly 60 percent of those displaced within South Sudan have not received any aid.
Many sought shelter in U.N. compounds that were surrounded by fighting, and many others have been moving quickly from one place to another in search of safety, making it difficult for aid agencies to reach people, according to the World Food Programme’s spokeswoman in Juba, Challiss McDonough.
“Something else that's been happening in this conflict on a much larger scale than in the previous conflicts in Jonglei state is the looting of humanitarian goods, including thousands of metric tons of food, aid agency vehicles, medical supplies,” McDonough said. “You can't distribute aid that's been taken.”
A major worry is that harvests have been destroyed in large parts of the country, worsening people’s ability to feed themselves in the months to come, McDonough said.
Aid workers are also concerned about host communities coping with huge numbers of displaced, and people cut off from aid that had been delivered before the conflict broke out. Awerial town in Lakes State, central South Sudan, which was home to 10,000 people before the conflict, is now host to more than 85,000 displaced.
International aid agencies provided 80 percent of the country’s health services, regional information officer for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Juba, Heather Pagano, said.
“South Sudan will continue to face a critical humanitarian crisis for a long time to come. In addition to the physical needs of people, such as food, water and healthcare, entire communities have been devastated. The damage that has been done cannot be undone by a cessation of hostilities,” Pagano added.
Read the full debate here.
The panellists were:
- David Deng - research director, South Sudan Law Society (Juba)
- Sara Pantuliano - head of Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute (London)
- Joshua Craze - researcher, Small Arms Survey (Geneva)
- Don Bosco Malish - programme officer, Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (Juba)
- Heather Pagano - regional information officer, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Juba)
- Challiss McDonough - spokeswoman, World Food Programme (Juba)