A tale of two women: Reaching across the political divide to push for peace in Yei
“We are tired. We are losing our husbands, we are losing our children. How long are we going to talk about peace?” cries Alice Senna Philip, as she sits alongside other weeping women in a dark, humid tukul (hut) in the heart of Yei town.
“Leaders are supposed to lead us. They are our shepherds and we are their flocks. Do they want to kill all of us? Can they rule without us? We need an answer today.”
Alice lives in the Government-held town of Yei, in the central Equatorias, which was once the breadbasket of South Sudan. Farmers in the area used to cultivate enough crops to feed their own people as well as communities right across the country. Diverse groups lived together in peace and women felt safe travelling around the town and to neighbouring villages.
Today, the town is a shadow of what it once was with the six-year civil war taking an enormous toll, forcing thousands of families to flee their homes and land, heading for protection sites elsewhere in the country or to camps across the border as refugees.
For Alice and the women of Yei, the signing of a peace deal eight months ago has not materialized. Suffering continues and the frustration is so immense that she is considering leaving if the country’s leaders don’t make real progress towards peace soon.
“If they don’t want to hear from us, the local people, we only have one option,” she says. “We are going to decide as women, we better leave this country and go for asylum. We leave them to fight because they like fighting.”
A short helicopter ride away from Yei is Panyume. This is the heart of Opposition-held territory, where hundreds of men emerge from the bushes and nearby grass tukuls with ammunition strung across their shoulders, clutching guns and RPGs, as the United Nations helicopter touches down.
Among the mass of military fatigues is Mama Joyce Kela. She’s been living in the bush since conflict erupted in the area in 2016 – choosing to stay with her people rather than flee to a protection camp. Her husband is dead and she’s raising their children on her own.
While she’s on the opposite side of the political divide, her experience of war and hopes for peace are the same as her counterpart, Alice, back in Government-held Yei.
“We do hear of peace, but we are still suffering,” says Mama Joyce. “Rapes have even taken place within this supposed period of peace. We have heard of peace but there are still atrocities taking place.”
“Why is it that when war breaks out, the victims are the women. We are not happy. Do the fighters fight because of women or because they are just soldiers who like killing?”
In the midst of this suffering, arrives a high-powered delegation of peace brokers. The Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan has joined together with the Special Envoy for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional body that helped broker the peace deal, and the interim chair of the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, which is overseeing its implementation.
They are visiting Yei because it is the only area in the country where political violence is continuing despite the peace deal. The delegation listens intently to the concerns of both parties, but their message is clear – the solution has to be found within, not imposed from outside.
“Everybody is talking about peace. We want to know how you profit from this peace,” says IGAD Special Envoy, Ismail Wais. “We heard a lot of grievances, but these grievances are the product of war and we don’t have any alternative to peace. War is not the option.”
“The peace we are talking about will not come from outside. It comes from inside and from you. This is why we are here to help you come to peace with one another.”
While there is a huge appetite for peace among the population, regardless of their political affiliations, there is also the looming threat of fresh violence if the fragile process fails.
In Panyume, that possibility is laid bare by the so-called Iron Lady of the area, also known as the Minister of Gender and Social Welfare, Hon. Hellen Abure.
“I hope the peace is there. Go in peace and leave us in peace. But we expect peace to be complete because, if we have to stay in the bush, you know what that means.”
While progress has been made towards implementing the peace agreement over the past eight months, several significant issues remain unresolved, despite the parties’ commitment to form a new transitional Government in less than a month’s time.
The delegation of UN and regional leaders recognize the risk that poses and have committed to travelling together around the country to encourage rapprochement and peace-building activities.
“The three of us travelling together means that we have a lot more firepower in showing the international community is focused, that it is together, and it wants to make real progress on the ground,” says the Head of UNMISS, David Shearer.
“Obviously there are some challenges here with regards to the ongoing fighting. Although we have seen a lull in the last little while, it’s the one area of the country where fighting still continues. But we, as the UN, want very much to push forward as much as we can with our patrolling to give people the confidence to start moving back and with our efforts to support peace in the area.”
The R-JMEC interim chair, Ambassador Augostino Njoroge, has a strong message for the parties to the conflict to fully implement the peace deal, but also makes a personal plea to the women of Yei.
“The silencing of the guns has happened across South Sudan, but it appears not to have happened here in Yei,” he says. “We need you, as the mothers, to talk to your husbands, your brothers, and your sons to bring peace. We need you to fight – to fight for peace.”