Hope in short supply as fighting in South Sudan escalates ahead of decisive Addis peace talks
As our helicopter approaches Leer in northern South Sudan, all one can see is eerily empty, dry, sun-stricken land. The people we meet on the ground, however, have a different story to tell. It is one of human suffering on an unimaginable scale. Escalating fighting and brutality in the area may compromise the next, widely believed to be decisive, round of peace talks in Addis Ababa.
“The peace talks have not been successful, and I guess most disappointingly the cessation of hostilities [agreement] that was signed at the end of last year which most people felt was a step in the right direction is not working either, and the intensification of the conflict on the ground has a huge human impact,” says UNMISS Chief David Shearer, keen to talk to the warring parties in the hope they will lay down their weapons and build durable peace.
On arrival, we are greeted not by one but two 'Typhoons', as the armed personnel carriers used by the Ghanaian peacekeepers are called.
And the 126 West African blue helmets making up the robust base in Leer have indeed gotten used to vicious, destructive whirlwinds in their immediate vicinity. Recent, frequent clashes between government and opposition troops have seen several humanitarian actors forced to leave the area.
But Leer has witnessed numerous arrivals, albeit involuntary ones, too. Over the last week, a steady stream of approximately 600 displaced persons have been scrambling for a place to temporarily settle down in a tiny protection area next to the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
They are joining another 500 or so displaced and disillusioned individuals, most of whom may smile wryly at the somewhat euphemistically named Temporary Protection Area.
“I have been here for three years by now, because of the crisis and all the cases of rape going on outside of here, in the villages. Staying here is not easy, but at least it is better and safer than in a village,” says Nyalui Yor. “Many people were being killed outside, and if you survive and if you are a woman, they rape you.”
Or worse, her fellow protection area resident Nyakui Kong, might add. She arrived just three days ago, with horror scenes still haunting her mind.
“People were killed, houses were burnt, food was taken away. Someone tried to hang me, but luckily I fell down and ran to the UN base. This is the only place I can go,” she says.
The utter lack of available food has also contributed to the decision of the desperate to seek shelter in the protection area, and judging by what precious little can be purchased in Leer’s town centre, real scarcity persists.
Cooking oil is sold in minuscule plastic bags, garlic is bought, or at least on offer, by the clove. Purchasing power is so limited and customers so few and far between that an elderly, near-toothless man fails to fetch a paltry 5 dollars for his two cute baby goats. Two armed young men of unknown affiliation grin grimly, puffing away on their cigarettes as they watch the non-unfolding of the business transaction.
James Gatdit, in the protection area, is also having a feeling that nothing positive is happening. He and his six brothers, three sets of twins, no less, were somehow separated from their parents about two years ago. His mother and father live in the UN Mission protection site in Bentiu, while James and his brothers are mostly idle in Leer.
“Life is no good here. We have no proper accommodation, there is not enough food and nobody is going to school. Why? There are no teachers and no books,” says James, who would like to become a doctor “to give medicines to people who need them”.
James Gatdit seems sadly resigned to his fate.
“How can I be optimistic? The future is no good. There is no future. I don’t believe that our leaders have it in their hearts to make peace.”
Sporting a Liverpool FC football shirt, he cannot even follow his favourite club’s amazing Champions League campaign on TV. Yet Champions League football provides a rare distraction for James and his peers.
“We can’t watch the games, but we play them ourselves,” he says with a hint of a smile.
So, who is to blame for the dire circumstances found in Leer and its surroundings? That, it turns out, depends on whom you are asking.
John Matip Gatluak, governor of Southern Liech, talks of “rebel” attacks “on a daily basis” and about the difficulties of “youth management”.
“The government is doing what it can to contain the situation, but management of youths is difficult, actually. We can’t really control our youth. The security situation is normal, except for the youth, who are out there fighting far from Leer”, Mr. Gatluak says as he steps out from his bullet-ridden office. He and his advisors hint that the conflict is not “tribal”, but “all political” and also driven by cattle raids and subsequent revenge attacks.
His is a lone voice of optimism:
“There is no point that we fight ourselves. President Salva Kiir is declaring a ceasefire and we have to respect it, although rebels continue to attack us. But peace will come. We will manage to bring peace to our people.”
In Dablual in Northern Liech, ten minutes north by helicopter, the tune is different.
“The security situation here is very bad. Government forces have been stealing in this area for almost ten days now. The soldiers come and look for the IO [in opposition] soldiers. They come and kill the old women, the children, the old men. They destroy everything, including houses and even the bore hole, which is now broken,” Major General Joseph Nhial, acting governor in the opposition-controlled area, laments. He mentions numerous places where fighting is ongoing, but maintains that his troops are just defending themselves.
“We [the opposition] are in a position of peace. We follow the cessation of hostilities [agreement] we signed last year.”
In the meantime, a majority of the local population, mostly women and children, are surviving on wild vegetables and fruits, in the bush or on fragile islands in the swamps surrounding the area.
Later this month, the next round of the High Level Revitalization Forum, already postponed twice, is expected to take place. Several stakeholders believe that these talks are crucial, and possibly the last chance to mend the broken seams of this young, war-torn country.
Optimism is hard to come by.
“I know that we are making a difference. I know that people are alive today because of what we do. It is what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going, but you are not seeing the longer term process panning out and that is really depressing. After a day like today, I feel pretty dispirited, to be perfectly honest,” Mr. Shearer said.
In an attempt to mitigate these bleak circumstances, UNMISS is intensifying its patrols to protect civilians and to monitor and report human rights violations. The Mission is also supporting the safe delivery of humanitarian aid and will continue to work alongside local communities to end the hostilities and build durable peace for the sake of the people.
But as we leave Leer heading for Juba, the Ghanaian 'Typhoons' remain. So does the uncertainty of what the future holds.