Photo credit: Saferworld
Photo credit: Saferworld

“Disability is not inability”: leading efforts for peace and security in Malakal, South Sudan

Community leader Sebit Khamis Marjan - who is blind - is helping communities bring peace to South Sudan’s second-biggest city, as well as championing rights for people with disabilities. “I may not ‘see’ all of you and your problems, but I have the vision to resolve them.”

Across South Sudan, thousands of people displaced by conflict live in six Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites within United Nations (UN) premises. In Malakal, the Shilluk and Nuer live in the UN PoC site, and the Dinka live in the town. As a result, there were previously no spaces for the different tribes to meet and discuss peace and safety issues affecting the state together.

“There was a lost sense of common identity as one people,” explains Peter Machar, Saferworld’s Policy and Advocacy Coordinator in South Sudan. “People from the three tribes considered each other as enemies. Land disputes and fresh wounds of recent war are so painful, especially for those who lost loved ones.”

Another issue is that, despite government and UN recognition of the rights of people with disabilities, they are often excluded from platforms that make decisions on peace and security in South Sudan. Because of this, Saferworld and Upper Nile Youth Development Agency, with funding from UK Aid Direct, prioritised including people with disabilities in the formation of community action groups in Malakal. These are community-based groups that link people from all backgrounds with the UN, international organisations and government to deal with community concerns.

“We also learnt that people with disabilities rarely visit the centre of Malakal town – which is returning to life after the war – because they fear for their lives and face discrimination from their communities,” explains Peter. Our work has helped to recognise the important role that people with disabilities can play in peacebuilding – in particular, improving how people interact with each other after years of conflict with Sudan and the civil war in South Sudan that began at the end of 2013.

Speaking up

Sebit Khamis Marajan had not visited the centre of Malakal town for six years. He felt his physical disability – Sebit is blind – had silenced him when the war broke out. But, when the community action group in the PoC where the Shilluk and Nuer tribes live were seeking a new chairperson, they knew Sebit – who had always helped to resolve conflicts between people in the PoC - was the person for the role. The group unanimously elected Sebit over three other candidates. After winning the election, Sebit explained: “I may not have my eyes to see you and to see your problems in the protection of civilian camp, but I have the vision to resolve your problems. Not being able to see will not prevent me from working with you on peace and security issues that are affecting our communities in Malakal.”

Sebit told us about the issues his community group in Malakal are trying to address: “We want all South Sudanese people to be able to take part in implementing peace. We need to restore the relationships between people that the war has broken. And we are concerned about peace between the town and the UN protection site.” To achieve this, Sebit and his community group hold monthly meetings to discuss and raise awareness of community issues such as land and property disputes, gender-based violence, hate speech, and young people using drugs and alcohol. They decide together how best to address concerns collectively. Sebit ensures he speaks to and coordinates his work with women and young people to include their views. He also speaks in church meetings and on a popular radio call-in show to build relationships and dialogue throughout Malakal. This creates space for people to talk more openly about their grievances.

Since becoming a community leader, Sebit has advocated for better inclusion of people with disabilities. Speaking on Nile FM radio during celebrations on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December 2019, Sebit said: “We are not just disabled people whose day is celebrated and [afterwards] everyone goes back to their work or homes, we are important members of society with abilities to contribute to peace and security of the community. We should be given opportunities to make decisions about pertinent matters affecting our community’s daily lives.” Nile FM has asked Sebit to become a regular contributor to the radio station after his speech sparked many calls from people inspired by his words.

Authorities have also been impressed with Sebit’s leadership. At a civil society workshop organised by Saferworld and Upper Nile Youth Development Agency, Andrea Miyom, the State Minister of local government and law enforcement agencies, told participants: “The government will stand with you at all times, please continue the good work and bring people from the town and protection of civilian sites together. I commend Saferworld and its partner Upper Nile Youth Development Agency for showing us the true meaning of disabilities not being inability. The state government appreciates the fantastic work Sebit is doing in the community both in the PoC and Malakal town. He is an inspiration to young people with disabilities.”

Looking to the future, Sebit says: “There must be respect and equality for all tribes and ethnic groups living in Malakal. We need training to understand human rights and justice. We must understand and respect humanity. Law enforcement should implement the rule of law effectively. I hope to see stability and unity. I hope to see South Sudan join other African counties for development and peace. I want to improve [the economic situation] and respect for people with disabilities. [It’s also important we] help those that are in need, support young people especially those with disabilities, and ensure people who need it have access to medication.”