Despite continued war across South Sudan, inter-communal dialogues between rival Dinka and Murle communities in greater Jonglei states have led to peace between villages that had been feuding for years.
South Sudan’s civil war has left few people untouched over the past five years, bringing violence and worsening conditions to affected communities. But for many, local conflicts date back much further, and there has been little reprieve from violence. In greater Jonglei, relations between the Murle and Dinka have been fraught for decades, frequently boiling over into outright conflict and tit-for-tat violence on both sides often involving cattle raiding, killings and the abduction of children. The Dinka have accused the Murle of child abductions and cattle stealing, while the Murle accuse their neighbours of invading their territory in retaliatory incursions.
The flames are fanned not just by raids and kidnappings, but also by social systems that put pressure on young people to continue the cycle of violence. The Murle community follows an ‘age set’ social system which skews influence toward elders who make most decisions. Members of age sets often come together to set the rules that govern the rest of their communities and guide behaviours – which younger community members may disagree with. Some of these rules and expectations, which may supersede state or national laws, can encourage young men to raid neighbouring communities to prove themselves and gain the respect of their elders and peers. On the other hand, Dinka youth equally come under pressure from their families and communities to acquire more wealth in the form of cattle for the payment of bride wealth or social prestige.
Relations between the two new states of Jonglei and Boma (where the Dinka and Murle live, respectively) reached their lowest point during the tenure of a Boma state governor. The period was characterised by an unprecedented series of attacks and counterattacks between the two communities, culminating in the invasion of Murle land in Boma by Dinka youth in early 2017. The invasion brought the situation to the attention of the national government, which demanded a halt to violence and appointed a new governor of Boma state. This opened up new avenues and platforms for interactions between the two neighbouring governments and between the two ethnic groups. It also created space for communities and authorities to begin talking to each other.
In the improved environment, Saferworld and partner Church and Development (C&D) organised a dialogue between the two communities in Bor town in April. The meeting was attended by chiefs, peace and reconciliation commission representatives, local authorities, faith groups, and women and young people from both the Murle and Dinka communities. While top-level discussions had their own benefits, these types of dialogues allowed community members to share their personal experiences and thoughts on the conflicts and share ideas for how to move towards peace.
A first step toward stopping the violence
"There was not a single battle against our neighbours in Dinka land that I haven’t participated in since I was young", said one young Murle leader at the dialogue who said it was his first time visiting Bor town. "Now that we are working for peace, I will mobilise all the youth I know to work for peace".
"In peace, we can take our children to school", said the deputy governor of Jonglei state, who was also present at the meeting. "We can produce enough food for ourselves and our families, and we can do everything we need for ourselves."
The chiefs from both communities agreed to exchange contact information and communicate regularly so that they could get in touch and proactively address contentious issues when they felt tensions rising. The paramount chief of Boma said he would do what he could to retrieve children abducted by his community and return them to Bor, and urged his Dinka counterparts to stop their young people from attacking Boma land and report incidents to the relevant authorities.
After signing the resolutions to keep the peace, participants burst into songs and ululations, signalling revived relations.
Three weeks later…
As promised during the meeting, authorities from the Murle community returned 11 abducted children (nine girls and two boys) in early May of this year. "We attribute this particular move to the work done by partners in building peace among the two communities," said the head of the Murle delegation that returned the abducted children. "The recent dialogue Saferworld and partners engendered positive change among members of the Murle community".
"The return of those children is an immediate result of the dialogue Saferworld facilitated in Bor", said the chairperson of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission of Boma state. "We briefed the honourable governor upon return from Bor and in line with the resolutions. He started mobilising community leaders and local authorities to act in favour of peace, and the return of the eleven children evidences this move."
The authorities in Jonglei were delighted at the return of the children, with the governor calling for a public rally for peace in Bor town. He requested the three paramount chiefs of Bor, Twic East and Duk counties of Jonglei state to work closely with village chiefs and community members and report to state authorities any child that might have been abducted. "We can only realise peace when communities and authorities work together".