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“Peace remains as elusive as a butterfly”: Reflections from South Sudan

13 July 2022 “Peace remains as elusive as a butterfly”: Reflections from South Sudan

Three people share their thoughts on peace, conflict and hope in South Sudan as they await the implementation of the peace agreement and the upcoming 2022 elections.

In 1992, I saw a rushing plane, hurrying like a falcon going to seize prey.

I was just about to ask my mother where it was going. Usually, other planes which crossed the blue skies had distinct sound and moved with relaxed speed. Suddenly I heard a loud bang, and the backyard of Lotukei mountain was filled with dark smoke.

“Oh, that is an Antonov bomber plane”, my uncle said from his seat. His left foot was immersed in a basin full of water. On his right hand, he wound guinea worm around dry thatching grass. He was thin, and his army coat hung loosely so that his neck tendons showed proudly. He had moved hundreds of kilometres from the battlefields around Jonglei, crossing Tingili desert infested with guinea worms.

That day, before the smoke cleared, I asked another question. “Why are we fighting, uncle?” He sighed, letting the guinea worm relax around the grass, while holding the other end to prevent it from slipping back to the wound. “It is about our land, our better future. When we win this war, you will be in school. You will move by vehicles on paved roads, your mother will cultivate using tractors, will have enough food, we will stay in houses with electricity, we will not hear bombs anymore, no person will oppress another.”

On 9 July 2011, these dreams were getting real. We had an independent country. Resources abundant. The future was bright. We only worried about ageing! Because good things were there to stay, except the fleeting age.

Boom! Gloom returned! Barely two years from our euphoria!

When I visited the camp for internally displaced people around Juba in 1992, there were children of my age. They asked similar questions as I did then. They lived in very impoverished conditions. They were caged in their own country. They saw even worse things than I did.

But now, every concerned citizen asks these questions:

Where did it go wrong?
How did the men and women suffer so much for us, only to have this country repeat the mistake of the previous oppressor?

We reneged the principles of governance.
We crushed its pillars.
War is nothing but a consequence of bad governance.
We spent billions of pounds seeking peace.
It remains as elusive as a butterfly.
Because we pretend like we don’t know what the problem is.

Millions of internally displaced people,
Millions of refugees,
Millions of host communities,
Still have the flicker of hope, which I received when my uncle explained about the 1992 Antonov bomb.

South Sudanese will stay in peace.
South Sudanese will stay in their homes.
They will cultivate without fear of being killed in their farms.
They will rear animals without fearing cattle rustling.
Urban dwellers will not have to erect brick walls because of armed robbers.

But this will not come from nothing,
This will come with a great awakening.
Putting governance first before everything,
Before our own tribes,
Before our own stomachs.

The real future lies in the implementation of one document.
It is called the Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan.
It has most elements of governance.
It’s the sure path to stability,
It will empower our women.
It will strengthen our judiciary.

The turning point however is one.
It is called the elections.
It has two outcomes.
A good one will be to disarm dictators.
A bad one will be to validate their stay in power.

Amura Philip, Operations Manager at Root of Generations, on ‘the flicker of hope amidst diminishing aspirations of the South Sudanese people’. Root of Generations is an NGO that is committed to finding sustainable solutions to challenges faced by women and children who are affected by conflict, poverty and discrimination in South Sudan. Find out more on their websiteFacebook and Twitter.

I go blank when someone asks me about South Sudan. This is because I am often confused with where or how to categorise this blessed nation state. South Sudan is a land of abundance. That to many may seem unrealistic but it is real. It is a land of many diverse economies, cultures and environments.

What is not certain about South Sudan, and I would like to reflect on, is its politics and development. In saying that, we are not talking about just two things, we are talking about the most powerful two spheres in control of everything else in the country.

The political turmoil brings unrest, and the unrest brings an unstable economy, insecurity, war, displacement and death. The unrest also destroyed the little progress that South Sudan had made. This is not only disappointing, it created instability in all sectors. Without a stable and fair political identity, one can and shall always have limitations on what to say about South Sudan.

In order to not waste words, I would like to reflect on women in South Sudan – we’re not getting it right. I am talking about everyone involved, including international groups that have women’s rights at heart. I live in two different countries: Australia and South Sudan. This means I have seen two sides of the coin.

In Australia, it makes more sense when one questions the urgent need for gender equality, women’s inclusion in decision-making and many other feminist demands. In South Sudan, we are talking about meeting fundamental human rights. Very important things like maternity health, girls’ education, sanitary health, menstruation hygiene management, the safety of women from rape during war.

What I am saying here is the idea of women’s empowerment that I advocate for in Australia is inconceivable in South Sudan. This is because women’s basic human needs are not being met. For young women to understand tenets of feminism, they need education. For mothers to understand the importance of women’s agency, they first need adequate maternal health and protection from maternity-related diseases.

Early child marriages happen in South Sudan because of a lack of opportunities for girls, making marriage their only possible and available option. Those who know me will describe me as a radical feminist and gender advocate. I don’t limit myself to anything but do extend my service to everything that requires change. I have women’s rights and empowerment at heart and I speak passionately and strongly about that anywhere and everywhere that allows my voice to be heard.

The future of South Sudan is something I don’t talk much about because the future is what is being done now. I am always less future-focused when talking about South Sudan. I am hopeful – especially for women and young people. Our young women and youth have potential. This alone makes it worth it – to work through contemporary issues. Our young people are determined to bring changes to their personal lives, and I think to myself, this is something good to start with. With more opportunities for them, things can get better with time.

Amer Mayen Dhieu, Founder and Executive Director of ChildBride Solidarity. ChildBride Solidarity is a women-led NGO that is dedicated to ending child marriage and gender-based violence by empowering girls and young women to fulfil their potential through participation in, and positive contributions to, the socioeconomic and political arenas of South Sudan. Find out more on their website and Facebook.

South Sudan got its independence from Sudan in 2011. South Sudanese diaspora and people who were in refugee camps came back home with the hope of enjoying peace in their country; they expected the government to provide services like better health facilities, education to the children, good roads, security and food security. Instead, in 2013 the war broke out in Juba between the forces of the current President Salva Kiir’s and the current Vice-President Dr Riek Machar.

Many lives were lost during this war, properties destroyed, people displaced to protection of civilian camps and to internally displaced people and refugee camps. South Sudan is also engulfed with intercommunal violence, cattle raiding, child abduction and revenge killings. South Sudan’s economy began to suffer in 2012 when the government of South Sudan closed its oil pipeline in Sudan. Inflation of the South Sudanese pound against the US dollar has caused skyrocketing of prices of commodities in the market. The majority of people depend wholly on relief food. There is no food security as communities are always affected by the intercommunal violence. No farming. No good healthcare is provided to communities.

My reflection on the future of South Sudan is that the warring parties – mainly President Kiir and Dr Riek Machar – should implement the revitalised peace agreement in good faith. In the future, I would like to see a South Sudan where communities co-exist peacefully among themselves. A South Sudan where there is no fighting, no displacement of people, no destruction of people’s livelihoods. Where there is freedom of expression, freedom of speech and respect of rule of law. South Sudan is a country with abundant resources and only needs good leadership where leaders are elected through fair, transparent and credible elections rather than obtaining power through armed violence. Preparations for peaceful elections should be made before the election. We need a country where leaders are accountable for their actions. If there is peace, dividends of peace will be achieved. We will have good roads, good education, good healthcare, food security and security. Peaceful disarmament of our civil population should be the priority.

Elizabeth Ayen Kuer, Executive Director of the Jonglei Women Empowerment Programme, which promotes women’s economic empowerment through livelihoods and entrepreneurship skills training, as well as creating awareness of gender-based violence and providing support for victims of gender-based violence. Find out more on their website and Twitter.

Illustration by Tinuke Fagborun.