As S. Sudan's rainy season ends, more aid for the displaced – but more fighting

Heavy rains since May put a pause on fighting in South Sudan. But with the weather becoming clearer, so too is the lack of progress toward peace over the past six months.

Matthew Abbott/AP
A rebel soldier patrols through a flooded area near the town of Bentiu, South Sudan on Sept. 20, 2014. Sudan's government plans to increase military assistance to rebels in South Sudan, which could prolong the south's civil war and return the region to a wider conflict.

For the past six months, South Sudan’s rainy season brought misery to the nearly 2 million civilians displaced by the 10-month civil war. In crowded United Nations camps, tens of thousands lived ankle-deep in latrine overflow; and for those in the countryside, survival meant eating water lilies and drinking from rivers as the land transformed into marshy islands.

The rains are petering out, and should cease this month. But the change in weather hardly means respite: The end of the wet season means the start of the fighting season.

With peace talks faltering, the government and opposing rebels are preparing for war. Both sides have stockpiled weapons and drummed up support from military allies over the months of rain. And the international community has failed to confront those orchestrating the violence, analysts say, which means there is likely to be more suffering for civilians already enduring a humanitarian disaster that the UN categorizes on par with the Syria crisis. 

Perhaps the biggest worry is that the conflict may slip beyond anyone’s grasp. There are more than 20 armed groups – including ethnic militia and foreign forces – roaming South Sudan, and leaders have tenuous control.

“I’m predicting very serious military clashes,” says Edmund Yakani, a leading South Sudanese peace activist in Juba. This could lead to further famine, disease, and hunger, he says.

Power divide

South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 following a split in the Army between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. The number of dead is unknown, but observers estimate it's well over 10,000. The fighting has caused the world’s worst hunger crisis, according to the UN, because farmers fled their fields.

The rebels – guerrilla fighters with little heavy machinery – are already on the move over the still-wet ground. They attacked the oil town of Bentiu for four days last week, with heavy casualties reported on both sides. Stray bullets rained on civilians taking shelter at the town’s UN base, killing at least one child and wounding others.

Now, Mr. Machar’s forces are expected to push toward the oil fields in Upper Nile state – the government’s only source of revenue – before Chinese troops deploy to secure the rigs early next year, according to a report by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based monitoring group. The rebels have been arming themselves; markings on shell casings and leaked minutes of high-level meetings show that Sudanese leaders in the capital, Khartoum, which supported Machar in the 1990s against Kiir in a previous civil war, are again backing the rebel leader.

President Kiir’s side is also gearing for battle. He’s purchased tens of millions of dollars’ worth of Chinese weapons in recent months. 

“We all see the government planning a significant offensive to retake territory lost to the opposition since December,” says Casie Copeland, South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

A missed opportunity?

The rainy season provided an opportunity for diplomacy to head off further conflict, but the peace process, spearheaded by IGAD, an East African bloc cled by Ethiopia and Kenya, has not produced results. Deadlines for peace deals passed, but IGAD never delivered on threats to freeze the riches South Sudan’s leaders are said to have stashed in Addis Ababa and Nairobi.

The US, the country with perhaps the most influence thanks to Washington’s longtime support for the South during its independence struggle against Khartoum, has also made little headway.

“During the rainy season the US missed opportunities to impact the conflict, such as when Kiir was in Washington [for the US-Africa Leaders’ summit in August],” says Ms. Copeland. “Instead of passing hard messages, the [South Sudanese] came back believing they had support from Washington to try and beat Machar on the battlefield."

Following the US visit, South Sudan’s government and its allied militia engaged in a sweeping and ongoing crackdown on perceived dissent, harassing and detaining journalists, kidnapping and killing aid workers, and abducting UN staff, with little outcry from the West.

In addition, Copeland says, the US has not seriously pressured Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni – a close military ally of Washington – to withdraw his troops who have been supporting Kiir since the start of the war.

A silver lining?

If there is any silver lining for the dry season, it’s that the fighters aren’t the only ones to benefit from dry roads. Humanitarians have been bogged down for months, unable to access those in greatest need.

“We’re in a much better position because of the dry season to respond to incidents. We can move around a lot better,” says Sally Cooper, spokesperson for CARE International in South Sudan. But the only real solution, she says, has nothing to do with weather.

“There’s a lot of people displaced, there’s a lot of suffering right now. It’s really important that the fighting stops before the situation gets worse.”

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