South Sudan cease-fire blows up, days after the ink dries

Renewed fighting endangers millions in the world's newest nation. Some good news: the government will now allow food barges up the Nile to help feed hungry refugees.

Drazen Jorgic/Reuters
A general view shows flood waters within the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) camp in Malakal, Upper Nile State, May 1, 2014.

A cease-fire inked days ago between South Sudan's warring leaders is falling apart, dimming hopes for a quick peace that is widely seen as needed to ensure that millions of civilians have access to basic humanitarian aid. 

President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed at a meeting last Friday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to end a brutal five-month civil war that has seen thousands killed and more than a million people displaced. The agreement was nearly identical to a previous cease-fire signed in January, which collapsed in days.

Now, with fighting reported hours after the cease-fire went into effect Saturday night, and continuing daily, it seems the new deal is faring almost as badly as its predecessor.

South Sudan's war began in December when disputes between Mr. Kiir and his sacked former vice president Machar turned violent. The fighting began to pit soldiers of Kiir's Dinka ethnicity against Nuer fighters loyal to Machar. The conflict turned brutal and heavy in towns and cities around the country, forcing more than a million people into the bush or refugee camps. 

Last week, in a genuine surprise, diplomatic pressure from East African regional leaders and from Western officials like US Secretary of State John Kerry, combined with economic sanctions and the threat of military intervention, brought the two principals to the Ethiopian capital to end the conflict.

Machar emerged from his bush hideout and Kiir arrived from Juba, South Sudan's capital. But the signing seemed largely symbolic. Kiir and Machar avoided eye contact and declined to shake hands when they exchanged documents.

South Sudan's government maintains it has a "constitutional mandate" to take back opposition-held territory seized since the late January truce, while a recent loss of Nasir, a town deep in the rebel heartland close to Machar's bush headquarters, rankles his team.

Clashes between government and rebels have continued, mainly around the contested town of Bentiu, a strategic gateway to oil-fields in the north. On Thursday, battles broke out in the north in oil-producing Upper Nile State.

Negotiators are beginning to hammer out a blueprint for a transitional government. But sources in Addis Ababa say a workable diplomatic bridge between the two sides' very different views of the conflict may be a bridge too far.

The rebels contend they are fighting a popular, just war in response to massacres of Nuer and years of ill governance; the government argues it is fighting a set of power-hungry coup plotters.

Indeed, if anything, the generals have ratcheted up their war talk.

"If they don't stop provoking us, we know where they come from and where they've been launching those attacks," government Army spokesperson Philip Aguer told the Monitor.

Rebel military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang sent a press release saying there are "real risks of Juba returning the country to full blown war."

Fortified UN bases

A telling sign of the fragility of any peace deal in South Sudan, and of the mistrust that many South Sudanese feel toward their leaders, can be seen in the fortified UN bases now being used to house nearly 100,000 civilians.

Despite deplorable conditions in the shelters, the displaced and the refugees aren't rushing home.

"We have no confidence in the agreement," says Paulino Agen, a former Sunday school teacher, standing barefoot in ankle deep mud in a UN
camp in the town of Malakal, where over 18,000 people are packed together.

"The opposition can jump at any time, and the government forces can jump at any time."

In more remote parts of the country, many South Sudanese fleeing the violence haven't even heard of the cease-fire.

"We don't have any radio or television," explained a new arrival in a small riverside village north of Malakal called Wau Shilluk, as he drove stakes into the earth for a new hut. He did not want to give his name. Wau Shilluk has of late become home to thousands pouring in to escape fighting, 

The UN, it appears, is digging in to help civilians for the long haul. In Malakal, they're expanding the camp and deploying 850 more peacekeepers this week. An official review of the UN's mandate in South Sudan comes this summer, and sources within the organization privately hope for an overhaul in the mission's peacekeeping size and scope to hedge against continued fighting.

In the near term, the bigger concern is whether humanitarian assistance can reach civilians in need. Insecurity along transport routes and harassment of aid workers by armed groups has curtailed efforts to bring food, medicine, and other goods to vulnerable populations.

Corridors of aid

In Addis Ababa, Kiir and Machar also pledged to open up corridors for aid.

Whether the situation has improved very much is hard to say.

"It is only a few days since the parties signed the truce and the situation is fluid in some parts of the country," says George Fominyen, spokesperson for the World Food Programme in South Sudan. "It is not easy to ascertain whether there have been changes."

In what could be a promising sign, Mr. Fominyen says South Sudan's government has approved two barges to ship 800 tons of food up the Nile to the country's north. These would be the first long distance food barges to cruise up-river since late April, when a UN boat running the river took fire from the government-controlled north bank, injuring two peacekeepers and two crew members.

The necessity of opening up the Nile, South Sudan's transportation lifeline, cannot be understated.

Without use of the river in this largely road-less nation, aid groups must fly in nearly all goods, stretching already thin budgets and limiting the amount of supplies available. Construction of even basic amenities like latrines has been significantly scaled down because aid groups simply can't afford to fly in enough wooden planks.

More worrisome is the threat of famine later this year if farmers cannot return to their fields to plant before the rains come in full swing this month. Already there are signs of hunger in hard-to-reach locations. A recent survey by a consortium of aid groups found 6.9 million people to be "acutely food insecure."

In Wau Shilluk, the markets are still full. But displaced people are worried about food being available in coming weeks. Most have given up on returning home to plant, and are now selling off their prized livestock or are collecting firewood for cash, to buy food.

If aid can't reach them soon, a worker in the village health clinic says, "God will have to save them."

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