So many moments stay with me. During the course of this recent mission in South Sudan people recounted unimaginable suffering and acute fear; they showed tremendous strength and unflagging resilience; and they shared both deep despair and determined hope.
Many of the moments were unexpected.
We spent a morning at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) site on the grounds of a private school in Juba, where close to 5,000 people are sheltered. More than one million people have been internally displaced in South Sudan over the course of the past seven months as violence and massive human rights violations swept through the capital Juba and Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states. There was considerable displacement within Juba itself. Approximately 30,000 IDPs are living in sites on two UN peacekeeping bases there. The others have had to find places to live throughout the city.
Some have turned to friends, close family and distant relatives. Many have settled into sites that have sprung up relatively spontaneously across the city. That is the case for the women, men and children who have taken shelter on the grounds of Mahad School. The school’s owner, faced with the desperate needs of so many people with nowhere to go, did not hesitate to allow them to stay. For how long, no one knows.
Unlike the camps on the UN bases, home almost entirely to members of the Nuer ethnic group, several different ethnic groups have found shelter and are living together at the Mahad School site. That includes the Dinka, Murle, Shilluk and Anyuak.
While the current conflict has largely pitted Dinka and Nuer against each other, there is recent history of conflict between the Dinka and the Murle, including political discord and armed clashes over the past two years in the state of Jonglei. Many of the Murle we interviewed at Mahad had initially fled from Jonglei to Juba in 2012 and 2013 because of insecurity there, only to find themselves caught up in the wave of atrocities unleashed in Juba in mid-December.
Mary, a Murle woman, had come to Juba from Pibor, in Jonglei, in June 2013. Her husband had been killed during the war that led to South Sudan’s independence. She was left to raise six children on her own. Two of those children were with her when fighting began in Juba during the night of 15/16 December. And very quickly the neighbourhood where she was residing came under attack by what seemed to be a combination of Dinka soldiers and police, along with armed civilians. Even though she had been fearful of attacks from Nuer fighters when she had lived in Pibor, she now found herself fleeing alongside Nuer neighbours.
Mary and her two children began to run. She had not made it far, however, when her 14-year-old son was shot and then hacked to death with machetes, only a few metres in front of her. But she had to keep running. Her 16-year-old daughter was with her, and they would have been helpless in the face of the armed gang that had set upon her son. She told me that she has never seen his body. There was a long pause before she felt able to continue with the rest of our interview.
If ever there would be reason to harbour hate and ethnic animosity, this would be it.
But as we finished talking, we were joined by Ayor, a Dinka woman whom I had interviewed earlier. There was clearly warmth and friendship between the two women. I had taken Ayor’s photo earlier, so she knew I had a camera. With great animation she insisted that I needed to take a photo of Mary and her together. Just as I readied to snap the picture, they joined hands.
There was much energetic back and forth between the two women and my translator at that point. The upshot that was shared with me was this: It starts right here. If we cannot put the hatred and distrust aside, here where we face the same problems and worries and where we have nothing; if we cannot put all of that aside here then there is no hope for this nation. We are not enemies; we are sisters. And we are ready to reach out to our Nuer sisters also.
They went on to tell me that they were making a concerted effort to learn each other’s languages; and that more widely most people in the camp were trying to learn the languages of one or two other ethnic groups. They viewed that as one of the most powerful ways to start to bring down the “walls of misunderstanding” that lead to violence. As they talked their hands remained clasped.
There is a lot that needs to happen in South Sudan: to better meet humanitarian needs, restore security, and take steps to prevent a repeat of the human rights crisis that has devastated the country.
As a first step towards restoring security, the international community needs to ramp up the pressure on both sides of the current conflict to live up to the ceasefire they have agreed to.
In a country already awash in arms and with more shipments arriving, there needs to be a comprehensive global arms embargo.
With conditions in IDP sites now both insecure and unhealthy, there is a desperate need for creative solutions to the country’s crisis of displacement.
Against a backdrop of decades of impunity that has fueled one massacre after another, this time there must be justice and accountability for the widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed.
All of that, yes. But at the end of the day is there anything more important than Mary and Ayor’s dream; joining hands across the divisions of distrust, grievance and loss that have fueled so much conflict in South Sudan?
It starts right there.