South Sudan: The Grass under Fighting Elephants
“The leaders of our country can learn a lot from us. Bring them here – we can teach them how to make peace,” a tribal leader told me. He heads the peace committee in Twic East county, Jonglei state, an initiative supported by CARE and funded by the Dutch government, where local communities in South Sudan are able to build skills in conflict resolution and peace building. This peace committee has successfully negotiated peace in their community after intra-communal violence killed 23 people.
It’s my last month in South Sudan. I’ve been here just over two years. I’ve watched the euphoria of post-independence disintegrate into despondency over the current conflict. I cannot believe that the current leadership is unconcerned with the suffering of the people who entrusted them with their hopes, dreams and expectations of a sovereign South Sudan. The success of the peace committee gave me back hope for the future of the country.
Later that day, another community leader told me “It’s just about power; they don’t care about the people of South Sudan. They are like two elephants fighting, crushing the grass beneath them; the grass is the people of South Sudan and they are suffering.”
The people of South Sudan are still facing extreme food insecurity, with close to half of the population lacking enough food. Hundreds of thousands of people especially in urban areas are struggling with high food prices and a high cost of living - indications of the country’s ailing economy. Those who have incomes struggle to buy basic commodities because of massive inflation (estimated at between 30-50%). UNICEF reports that young girls are being raped and killed; boys are forced to be soldiers; children left to bleed to death after they’ve been injured. People’s homes and villages have been torched to the ground.
The war is unrelenting and no one is taking responsibility, let alone putting forward a solution that will see the end of this crisis. But the people of Twic East, as in the rest of South Sudan, know that peace can only be found by putting down their guns and speaking to each other.
“It is only by silencing the voices of those who want to continue to fight that we can bring peace. Being led by the very people who started the fighting, will only lead to more fighting,” another community leader told me.
The international community – the diplomats, the UN, international NGOs – is frustrated by the lack of progress. Their funding and diplomatic efforts have borne little fruit and there is growing concern of the lack of goodwill by the leaders of South Sudan to end the almost two-year conflict.
For the people of South Sudan, there is still hope.
From the beginning, people with a deep knowledge of the country have said that individual sanctions against those who propagate the conflict, plus an effective arms embargo are two possible effective solutions. Neither of these is likely. They are not politically palatable. Some members of the Security Council are unlikely to vote for an arms embargo. Even if they do, South Sudan’s neighbors would have to enforce it, an unlikely scenario. Few of these countries have both the political will and the capability to effectively implement an arms embargo.
While the international community has been unable to help bring peace to the country to date, they have been successful at ensuring that those caught in the middle – the people of South Sudan – have some of their basic needs met, for example. CARE has provided assistance to over 700,000 people in the past 18 months. While many people are food insecure, there is, as yet, no famine in the country; a testament to the resilience of the South Sudanese and a herculean aid effort, supported by a dedicated, knowledgeable and committed NGO, UN and donor community.
This must continue.
It is one of the few successes the international community has to show for their years of efforts – the humanitarian and development effort in the country is the only thing that’s working. By focusing on the local level, on building on the capacities of local communities, organizations, and officials, the international community has, to a degree, been able to have an impact and give hope to the people of South Sudan. Focusing on only humanitarian or short-term aid will debilitate the aid effort. But, worse than that, it would amount to collective punishment: punishing a people for the deeds of leaders that do not appear to care for the well-being of the citizens.
The international community must not forget the people of South Sudan.
By Aimee Ansari, CARE Country Director in South Sudan