With new negotiations, South Sudanese warily hope for a 'peace' they can see

Mulugeta Ayene/AP
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (l.) and rebel leader Riek Machar (r.) shake hands during peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 21. South Sudan's government says Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar have agreed to share power in a transitional government in the latest effort to end a five-year civil war.
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South Sudan has existed for seven years. For five of those, it’s been caught in a civil war with widespread atrocities – punctuated by multiple peace agreements and a long list of cease-fires, but none that have brought lasting peace. So when President Salva Kiir flew into the capital earlier this month, a day after signing yet another cease-fire, Joseph Guloch went to see for himself. He wanted to know what the president had to say to people like him: millions of South Sudanese displaced by the conflict, waiting for a signal that their lives could begin again. On Thursday night, leaders inked a peace agreement developed from the initial Aug. 5 deal. But Riek Machar, the most powerful rebel leader, warned he opposed several provisions. If this promise of peace fails to deliver, it won’t be much of a surprise to many people here. Peace between leaders is not the same as peace for a country, they say. And so, in camps for the displaced, like the one where Mr. Guloch lives, people wait with a hope weighed down by history.

Why We Wrote This

Leaders alone can’t make lasting peace. And after years of failed negotiations, South Sudanese say peace won’t matter until it’s more than words on paper – until it makes an everyday difference.

They said that peace had come to South Sudan, but Joseph Guloch knew he had to see it for himself.

So on Aug. 6, the morning after the country’s leaders signed a cease-fire agreement to end the five-year civil war, he walked out of the displaced-persons camp where he lives with his family in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. On a nearby road, he boarded a wheezing bus to the international airport, a cluster of dirt-streaked tents flanked by rows of humanitarian airplanes.

The president, Salva Kiir, was about to land from Khartoum, Sudan, where the peace deal had been inked, and Mr. Guloch wanted to be there when he did.

Why We Wrote This

Leaders alone can’t make lasting peace. And after years of failed negotiations, South Sudanese say peace won’t matter until it’s more than words on paper – until it makes an everyday difference.

Like many of the 10,000 South Sudanese who gathered at the airport that day, Guloch was tired of hearing about peace secondhand. He wanted to know what the president had to say to people like him, the ones who’d spent years in the tented cities of the displaced that sprawl across this country and its neighbors, the ones still waiting for the signal that their lives could begin again.

“It’s one thing to talk of peace, it’s another thing to make it happen,” he says. The leaders who had gathered in Khartoum “are the people at the top level.” Was this peace just a thing that happened in air-conditioned conference rooms in far-away cities, he wondered, or was it a thing people like him – “the people at the bottom level” – could rely on too?

He still doesn’t know. 

In the days and weeks after Mr. Kiir’s jubilant return to Juba, negotiations have continued haltingly to fill in the details of that initial promise of peace. On Thursday evening, dignitaries gathered in Khartoum approved a peace agreement developed from the initial Aug. 5 deal. Negotiations will continue next month. However, Riek Machar, the most powerful rebel leader, warned that he opposed several of its provisions, suggesting that cracks may already be forming in the shaky alliance between the government and its former adversaries.

For many here, that wouldn’t be much of a surprise. South Sudanese know it doesn’t take much for peace to warp and crack. This, after all, is the second peace agreement in three years, and the latest in a long list of cease-fires in the course of the five-year civil war. And a large part of the reason for those continued failures, many say, is the very problem Guloch was concerned about – that a peace between leaders is not the same thing as peace for a country.

Indeed, many observers – including the United States – have warned that this round of peace negotiations, like those before it, will likely fail in the long run if it doesn’t include more than just top military and political leaders, whose rivalries have repeatedly stymied attempts at lasting peace.

“We remain steadfast that the best hope for sustainable peace is a process inclusive of ordinary men and women, civil society, religious leaders, ethnic minorities, and other excluded groups,” the governments of the US, Britain, and Norway said in a joint statement earlier this month. “Considerable challenges lie ahead, and we are concerned that the arrangements agreed to date are not realistic or sustainable.”

'Hope is not a strategy' 

The reasons peace has proven so elusive in the world’s youngest country also stretch deep into the region’s history. Shoved together by British colonialism, Sudan’s mostly Muslim north and its mostly Christian and animist south were at odds from the earliest days of the country’s existence in the 1950s. Resentment over heavy-handed northern governance of the south led to two civil wars, which sprawled across the entire second half of the 20th century and scattered the southern Sudanese across the region and the world. Without a country they could relate to, most southerners’ strongest sense of community came from within their own regions and ethnic groups – a fact that continued after they won independence in 2011.

“For most South Sudanese, South Sudan itself is just an abstract idea,” says Jok Madut Jok, the executive director of the Sudd Institute, a South Sudanese think tank. Many people’s closest loyalties, instead, have always been to their own communities.

So when a power struggle between Mr. Kiir, the president, and his former deputy, Mr. Machar, turned violent in December 2013, it quickly spread. Kiir, who comes from South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, and Machar, who is Nuer, used South Sudan’s old ethnic fault lines to stoke the tension. In the years since, forces led by each of the two men have been responsible for widespread atrocities, including mass rape and murder of civilians and the recruitment of child soldiers. The conflict has displaced more than 4 million people – a third of the country’s population – and brought on repeated, man-made famines in several areas of the country.

David Lewis/Reuters
A UN peacekeeper keeps watch as children gather in a camp for displaced civilians in Juba, South Sudan, June 17, 2017. South Sudan's civil war has displaced more than 4 million people – a third of the country’s population.

Still deeply suspicious of one another, Kiir and Machar have repeatedly tussled in these peace negotiations over issues like how many seats in government each man’s party should have, and how to carve up the country into states in ways that would be most beneficial to their supporters.

And so, in camps like the one where Guloch lives, South Sudanese wait out this peace process as they have those before it – with a hope weighed down by history.

“Hope is a limitless quality in South Sudan, but people here also know hope is not a strategy for forming a country,” says Dr. Jok. “In addition to hope, you need plans, you need roadmaps, you need negotiations made in good faith, and we know that too.”

7,000 stories

And few people know that better that Guloch and the other residents of Mahad, an internally displaced persons camp huddled between abandoned buildings on the sunbaked grounds of an old university campus in Juba, where more than 7,000 South Sudanese have taken shelter over the past five years.

7,000 people means 7,000 stories of flight, tales told to outsiders in blunt, simple summaries.

“When the war came, it didn’t come only for those who carried the guns,” says Nyoyam Won, who came to the camp four years ago with her husband and seven children from the northern city of Malakal. “That war came for everyone. We had to leave.”

For Guloch, too, the end of normal life came quickly. “There was fighting. There was no food. So we ran,” he says.

In the camp in Juba, his old life gave way to a new one that seemed to play out in slow motion. On the dirt floor of his flimsy donor-issued tent, his wife had given birth to a baby boy, Baba. On that same floor, Baba had learned to crawl and then to walk, tottering between the bed frame and the two plastic chairs pushed against the wall. But even as his boy grew into a gangly toddler, Guloch himself felt frozen. Life went on, and also it didn’t. Some days, he wandered out of the camp to a nearby street corner, where he sat watching the city – the men gossiping in nearby tea shops, the motorcycle drivers loitering in the shade waiting for customers, the gaunt street children tracing circles in the dirt with sticks.

“You look at your family and you see your kids have nothing, your wife has nothing, and you just feel ashamed,” he says. “So you go out to get away from it all.” But there wasn’t really anywhere to go. Without money, he could only get so far. And so, he always came back.

“Truth be told, there is nothing for us here, but what can we do except wait?”

Silvano Yokwe and Samir Bol contributed reporting. Support for the reporting of this story was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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