How to achieve intercommunal peace – the story of Rumbek

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30 Jul 2016

How to achieve intercommunal peace – the story of Rumbek

Evelien Vleeshouwers

Rumbek was recently one of the most insecure towns in South Sudan. At times when I spoke with people in Juba and told them I was working there, I was met with pity. It was the example of how intercommunal violence can disrupt normal life in a major way. Not so anymore. The story has changed.


With everything that is going on in the country, the three communities in Rumbek have finally embraced peace and it is currently one of the more stable places in South Sudan. I met the three men responsible for this astonishing success.


We met in the office of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Marik Nanga Marik, who represents the Pakam community. The two other gentlemen, Mr. Samuel Madol Akec from Kuei and Mr. Mading Malualyom from Rup, are already there.


It is hard to imagine that these three communities were once in conflict with each other when you see them sitting and chatting together. For two months now it has been quiet in and around Rumbek. That hasn’t happened since fighting broke out between the three communities in 2012.


How and why did this conflict start?


“If you look into the start of this conflict, you will not find any sensible answer”, explains Mr. Mading, who is the also the Deputy Chairperson of the Central Committee that oversees the peace process.


“And they realize now that they are fighting a senseless war.”


Of course every war can be seen as senseless, but this conflict seems to have been more pointless than most.


“There have always been so many marriages between the three communities”, says Mr. Samuel, Chairperson of the Central Committee.


Mr. Mading starts laughing. “You know that his mother and my mother are sisters?”


In Dinka culture, when you marry as a woman, you become part of the community of your husband.


“They realized they were in fact killing themselves”, says Mr. Samuel.


It is something I had heard many times, but this time I understand the full meaning of it: the three men give me examples of uncles killing their nephews, cousins killing each other…and it suddenly dawns on me that they were literally killing their own families.


Were as in the past, mind you, because it doesn’t happen anymore. Seven failed peace initiatives preceded this one. So what makes this initiative different?


“The approach is different”, explains Mr. Marik and adds:


 “This time it is more inclusive. Politicians, youth in the cattle camps, women, all were involved. There is ownership among everybody this time.” The peace process started with a forum where all intellectuals came together. This was the first forum to bring them all together”.


The forum agreed on a number of resolutions as to how to resolve the conflict.


“Very important is that if an incident happens now, it will be seen as an isolated event”, explains Mr. Benjamin Yuol, who works for the Civil Affairs Department in UNMISS and has been supporting the process from the beginning.


Furthermore, apart from the Central Committee, three Joint Committees will be set up to deal with the conflict on a more local level.


“They will discuss the problems at that level, because if you take this conflict in general only, you will not address the root causes”, says Mr. Marik.


In the meantime the Central Committee does not rest on its laurels. Because of the rain, many areas in the area have been flooded, making them inhabitable for people and their cattle. Most communities are moving to higher grounds, located in and around Wulu, south of Rumbek. UNMISS has already flagged this as an early warning, because what will happen when the three communities meet?


“The three communities all went to Wulu, only for grazing purposes”. We have sent people to mitigate between the three communities, and so far no conflict has been reported,” says Mr. Samuel.


The peace is holding.


“They realized that they were not benefitting anything from this conflict”, says Mr. Samuel.


“Hopefully once the peace is finalized, people will be able to settle back. Boys and girls can play again in the evening. The government can start focusing on the delivery of services instead of security issues. People have started farming, are able to come to town when they need medical services, and people can finally see their relatives again. My in-laws could not come to my home because they are Rup, but now they can visit us, Mr. Marik adds.


Food security, health improvement, family reunions… It is hard to believe that I am sitting in Rumbek, in South Sudan, hearing about all these positive developments. But the process of reaching this new harmonious state of affairs was one of immense suffering.


“There was insecurity, hunger, fear; we learned so many lessons. We have seen how bad it is to have conflict. Children cannot go to schools, many lost their lives and relatives, women have been raped, and traders went out of business. The economic and social fabric of our society was destroyed, says Mr. Marik.


So, how can a society move on from that? After all that happened, can there be something like forgiving and forgetting? Mr. Samuel says that perpetrators of previous incidents will have to be held accountable for the current peace to last.


“Anything that has happen will be resolved through special courts. Killings, looting of cattle, all these issues need to be addressed by the law; otherwise fighting will start up again,” he says.


This makes sense and has been said on numerous previous occasions, yet the questions persists: how realistic is it to try cases over crimes that took place maybe three years ago?

Mr. Marik interrupts my train of thoughts.


“People know each other. They know who killed their loved ones. You have to have justice done. And we are going to work on building up trust between the communities.”


After just an hour with the three gentlemen, they have become some of my favourite persons in South Sudan. If they can manage to overcome an almost four-year-long conflict between themselves, there is still hope for South Sudan at large.


“We should stop this negative thinking about ourselves”, says Mr. Marik when I ask him for a message for the people of South Sudan.


“Conflict should be resolved, and we must work hard together to change it.”


Mr. Mading chimes in:


“The people in South Sudan are good; they fought to liberate our country. But did they create South Sudan to fight each other? We should sit down together and avoid negative feelings.”


Mr. Samuel concludes the round of messaging:


“Let us bring a culture of peace, instead of a culture of fighting.”


As I leave the men to drive home, something Mr. Marik said keeps ringing in my head, and it rings true.


“We should talk about things that unite us, not divide us.”