Crossing divisions: building peace between youth in South Sudan

In Wau, South Sudan, inter-ethnic divisions are a key source of violent conflict. Saferworld and partners are working with youth groups from protection of civilian sites and communities to build bridges between ethnic groups amongst the on-going hostility. 

Located in north-western South Sudan, Wau Town in Wau State has a history of violent inter- and intra-communal clashes. Following the outbreak of civil war in 2013, Wau’s diverse makeup of Dinka and Fartit (an umbrella category comprising more than 15 small tribes) ethnicities has resulted in deep communal division between supporters of Fartit rebels and Dinka-dominated government forces, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

On 24 June 2016, a fresh eruption of violence between the two sides displaced thousands of Fartit community members. Arriving from Fartit-dominated areas including Jebel Kheir, Nazareth, Bazia Jedid and Hai Gezira in Wau state, the displaced settled in a newly established United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) protection of civilian (PoC) site. Since, interaction between the two ethnic groups has remained problematic. In Wau Town, the Fartit youth of the PoC site and the Dinka youth of Wau town have been spurring rivalries by circulating rumours about the other side, and engaging in worsening levels of violence including targeted attacks. 

Clearing rumours and misconceptions

In late-2016, building on previous collaborative work, Saferworld entered into an official partnership with the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO) – a national civil society group with field offices in Wau, and a profound understanding of the area’s context. CEPO recognised the need to bring youth from both groups together as part of a peacebuilding effort to  reduce tensions, distrust, and fear, prevent further outbreaks of violence, and begin to build peace. Over the course of three months, we spoke with the youth in Wau’s PoC site and in Wau Town and identified those who would take part in an inter-ethnic dialogue to address grievances and to form common understanding between the two sides.

In the days leading up to the dialogue, tensions between the two youth groups ran high due to recent claims of violence by PoC members. To diffuse the situation, Saferworld and its Implementing Partner CEPO, brought together eight youth leaders from both sides for multiple pre-dialogue meetings, to establish topics for discussion, and to prepare the youth for constructive debate. The youth leaders agreed that the agenda for the dialogue should focus on the misconceptions between the groups. A Saferworld-led consultation with the UN beforehand allowed careful planning to prevent the talks escalating into violence by establishing boundaries of conversation and respect.

Constructive conversations

Held in Wau Town, the meeting was attended by over 40 young males and females from both sides. After a hostile start where the participants expressed strong feelings of mistrust against the other side, the conversations began to unfold. Rumours were addressed one by one with the youth from both sides stating their opinions and then clarifying facts. This included PoC youth stressing that not all Fartits are rebels, and Wau Town youth noting that not all Dinka youth are beneficiaries of the Government.  Dialogue facilitators encouraged participants to think about mutual respect and understanding, peace and reconciliation, and independent thinking to challenge the larger rhetoric of division circulating in the community.  

By the third hour of discussion, youths were talking amongst themselves without facilitation and learning about each other’s communities. The youth of Wau Town acknowledged the reasons for displacement that challenged previous suspicions towards Fartit youth. Meanwhile PoC members noted that many community members in Wau Town do sympathise with their difficult living conditions within the PoC site. The leader of the PoC youth group, Joseph Silvio, noted: “Today marks the beginning of a new relationship among the youth groups….a relationship based on mutual trust and togetherness”.

The meeting was broadcast live on the Voice of Hope radio programme that covers the wider Wau area. Details were also published in a local newspaper titled Gurtong, to maximise its reach.

Looking ahead

In the months following the dialogue, relations between the two youth groups showed visible signs of improvement. While the previous breakdown in relationship had restricted the youths’ movements within the PoC site for fear of attacks against them, PoC youths have been able to leave the site and enter Wau Town. Freedom of movement for both communities has improved with students, teachers, and traders feeling more secure in traveling freely. The ongoing conflict in South Sudan continues to have an impact on Wau’s security and stability. However, PoC persons have continued to enter Wau Town and interact with Dinka locals – an act which would not have taken place before the dialogue. “I feel more confident now to engage with my colleagues from town, unlike before where suspicion for each other was high”, remarks Silvio.

Saferworld is looking to further facilitate inter-ethnic interactions by identifying influential community members who can inspire change in the community in Wau, as well as in neighbouring Tonj state with Luo communities later this year. A crucial step in advancing these dialogues lies in building stable relationships with state and non-state military actors who play a key role in both preventing and driving local grievances. Despite the ongoing national conflict that continues to impact South Sudan, Saferworld continues to engage youth in peacebuilding activities and remains optimistic about the potential for youth to lead change across the country.

Saferworld and partners have been implementing a community security project in Wau to bring community members, including different ethnic groups, women, youth and marginalised members of communities together with local authorities to identify and prioritise their safety concerns and find ways to address them.

Photo © Nektarios Markogiannis/UNMISS