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In South Sudan, civilians ask if peace deal could bring more conflict

The agreement  was signed in August, and has yet to be implemented. But in the Upper Nile region, one of the worst-hit areas of the war, some say it is no longer that relevant.

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    Sudanese military personnel check belongings of South Sudanese fleeing an attack on the South Sudanese town of Rank, at a border gate in Joda, along the Sudanese border, in April 2014. Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir ordered the opening of his country's border with South Sudan for the first time since the south's secession in 2011, state news agency SUNA reported on January 27, 2016.
    Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters/File
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Peter Deng was homeless once again.

His second home, set up in a United Nations compound outside the strategic oil hub of Malakal, was destroyed last month after half the camp was deliberately burned down by South Sudanese forces. The camp is home to the majority Nuer and Shilluk ethnic groups, and many here says homes were destroyed for that reason.

“I saw them all around carrying guns in the camp,” says Mr. Deng of the government soldiers, whom he recognized from their uniforms. “They started coming, burning the shelters ...”  

At least 40 people died and about half of the 48,000-large UN protected camp was burned to ashes, humanitarian groups here say. And UN chief Ban Ki-Moon condemned the attack, calling it a possible war crime. 

To Deng, however, this was another example of the South Sudanese government’s attempt to grab land from the Shilluk tribe, South Sudan's third largest ethnic group, which has lived in this oil-rich region for centuries. Clashes between government troops and ethnic militia have become commonplace here since civil war broke out in December 2013 between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

The war has carved most of the country along ethnic lines, between Mr. Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Mr. Machar's Nuer tribe, as well as several other ethnic groups, like the Shilluk. Contested areas like Malakal – as well as nearby Pibor and Leer – have recently become centers of violence in a country where land ownership translates to power. 

But as the Sudanese government prepares to implement a peace deal signed last August, the attack on the UN camp is a stark reminder of the seemingly intractable land disputes that the deal is supposed to help solve. Many in these war-fatigued areas wonder how effective the deal will be, especially since recent government actions have left whole ethnic groups suspicious of the Kiir's motives. To some circles, the implementation of the peace deal could actually cause conflict. 

“The peace agreement, which is essentially an elite pact at the top, will not positively effect ordinary citizens," says Jok Madut of the Sudd Institute, a think tank in South Sudan. "Various conflicts have erupted in [parts of the country] that are directly or indirectly related to the peace agreement, whether it's because people don't feel included in the agreement, or think the agreement is against them.”

A lack of trust

What is readily apparent in talking to to the Nuer and Shilluk survivors of the UN camp attack is that they do not trust that Kiir's government can fairly implement the deal. And they point to his decision to increase the number of states without consulting Machar as an example. 

When the peace agreement was signed, South Sudan had 10 states. But in October, Kiir announced he would boost the number to 28 – a change that would ultimately alter the political dynamic of the country. Kiir argued that the new states would give regions more autonomy, but many see the move as an attempt to sideline opponents. 

Experts also see it as part of a larger plan by the majority Dinka community to gain control of key strategic parts of the country.

“A lot of the [current] fighting across the country is about the implications of the 28 states, which will exacerbate, and in some cases create, conflict over land and political institutions,” says Joshua Craze, a South Sudan researcher at the Small Arms Survey, that monitors armed violence across the world.

Further, a program to repatriate displaced citizens into the Upper Nile region, where Malakal sits, has many concerned that it is an attempt to change the ethnic demographics of the region. Many of these displaced civilians happen to be Dinka. Analysts and humanitarian workers who did not want to be named say that this strategy could increase already rife ethnic tensions. 

In interviews, individuals in the program said they were moving for economic reasons, but do not come from the areas they are being relocated to. When asked about the program, Lokulenge Lole Timayo, who chairs the government program for relocation, said that the displaced were from all groups and had asked to be moved. The program, he added, would likely expand once the peace deal was implemented.

An imperfect peace deal

Despite the missteps, many in the capital of Juba see the current peace deal as the only way forward. Mr. Madut says that peace agreements that end civil wars rarely end all issues at once. It may solve conflict at the elite level, he says, but it is just as important to try achieve reconciliation and public support at the ground level.

“It will take 10 years of reconciliation, but it needs to be started right away,” he says. 

Kiir recently reappointed Machar as vice president, returning the government to where it was before fighting began. It is not clear when Machar would return from exile in Ethiopia to take up his position in Juba, and join the president in a 30-month transitional government.

But Mr. Craze is unsure how relevant the peace deal is today, since it no longer maps onto the reality on the ground. 

“It’s a peace agreement that has taken so long to be implemented that it no longer reflects the reality on the war,” he says. “Maybe a unity government will be formed, but this will have little influence on the ground, where armed groups are fighting for goals very different to Machar’s.”

Deng agrees. If the peace deal is not implemented as was agreed, he says, the Shilluk will continue fighting to regain lost land. For him, it is about preserving his ancestral home, not what is agreed upon in Juba.

“The land of Malakal is Shilluk,” he says. “If the Dinka remain in this area, we will not give up. We will continue the fighting until they move from this area.”

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