Payuel, Duk County, South Sudan: Rebecca, 50, sits leaning against the trunk of a dead tree. She has been sitting here all day, looking at the burned ground. This was where her house stood before insurgents attacked the village and burned everything. The smell of charred grass makes her think of the dead. She still feels the pain of the bullets that hit her in the arm. She cannot get rid of the mental image of her husband lying dead on the ground. At night, in her dreams, images she would rather forget are razor sharp. During the daytime, she tries her best to think about the future.
When the insurgents attacked Payuel, Rebecca took her children and escaped to the swamp areas, a five day walk from the village. They lived there until flooding made it impossible. Now, her children are in a refugee camp in the city of Bor, and Rebecca herself is back in the place where they once had a life.
About six months have passed since President Salva Kiir and his rival, the opposition leader Riek Machar, signed the peace agreement, with the laudable aim of creating a lasting peace in the world’s youngest country. The signing took place after enormous pressure from the international society – the UN Security Council had threatened to implement sanctions if a deal had not been reached. Although the agreement did not result in peace, it gave the people hope. Rebecca is among those who dared to hope that peaceful times were coming, and went back to her village to build up again what used to be.
“Even if everything is gone, this is where I feel at home. I will build everything up again and bring my children home,” she says.
Why is it so difficult to achieve peace in South Sudan?
We asked senior researcher Øystein H. Rolandsen at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) who has followed the situation in South Sudan over many years. According to him, the faultlines in the country stretch far back in history and there are many underlying factors for the conflict. He highlights three main elements:
Firstly, the heritage from the different civil wars plays a major part. South Sudan has in many ways become a violent and militarised society, and many people have weapons.
Secondly, the country’s economy is a rollercoaster. Until 2011, South Sudan was part of Sudan, and until the peace agreement between the two countries in 2005, the country was very poor. With the agreement, the regional government received a considerable share of Sudan’s oil revenues. After the independence, South Sudan had a 100 per cent right to govern the oil production and revenues. However, disputes with Sudan about who should pay for the oil transport resulted in 2012 in the South Sudanese government in Juba terminating all oil production.
When production recommenced in 2013, part of the production material was already destroyed. The civil war, in addition to the dramatic fall in oil prices globally, has sent South Sudan’s economy into a deep crisis.
Thirdly, the institutional framework is extremely weak. With few well established procedures, lack of staff and no income to pay salaries it is difficult to create a counterbalance to the military power.
Norway has been an important supporter during the peace process and when South Sudan became independent in 2011. Was becoming an independent state the best alternative at the time?
Although we used a lot of time and money on South Sudan, Norway was not an essential supporter. The most important advocates for the peace agreement, and the referendum about independence that came as a result of it, were the neighbouring countries Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The US was also among the most important driving forces. Many state that there was a better alternative than independence, but that is a big misunderstanding. I followed the peace process closely, and nothing indicates that a “better” peace agreement could have been reached. The alternative would have been continued war for an unknown period of time.
The UN forces, UNMISS, have been criticised for not managing to stop new fighting. Would you say the criticism is justified?
This is a difficult debate. If you look at the UN forces’ capacity, they have not had enough people and equipment to be able to use military strength to stop the parties from breaking the peace agreement or attacking civilians. However, on the other hand, they have done an important job in facilitating many reconciliation processes between leaders and groups in local conflicts. UNMISS has used diplomacy rather than military power. The establishment of several camps for protection of civilians in 2013 has also contributed to stopping comprehensive violations.
What if we get rid of the leaders on the top, would we be closer to peace then?
Salva Kiir is not a strong leader, and neither is Riek Machar. Their autonomy is restricted and they depend on support from other powerful people in their respective tribal factions. In South Sudan today there exist no potential leaders that are better or somehow more peaceful, and that would be able to bring the factions together and lead them. To get rid of the leaders on the top would probably result in further fragmentation of the political landscape and fighting would erupt between groups hoping to take the leadership. This we have already seen: One of the rebel leaders has taken over Riek Machar’s post as vice president.
Where do they go from here? Is there hope for South Sudan or is the country a failed state?
The question is whether one wants to be perceived as a negative doomsday prophet or cling to straws of positive thinking. Based on the factors I have already mentioned: weak leaders, the militarised state, weak institutional structures and an economy in ruins, it is difficult to be optimistic. When the national treasury is empty and weapons are readily available in the community, soldiers and police choose looting and other violent methods to obtain food. Life for the rest of the population becomes a nightmare, and many are fleeing.
The peace deal brought hope
When civil war erupted in December 2013, Duk County northeast in South Sudan was one of the hardest hit districts in the country. Thousands of people fled when the war took their homes and lands. According to the village chief in Payuel, Mapiou Deng, people are now returning. In March 2016, the area was home to 2,286 people, so called “returnees”.
A few minutes walk from the dead tree trunk where Rebecca’s house once stood, I meet Agot Marol, 50, and her children Achol Dan, 13, and Abiel Dan, 11. Standing on the ground where their home used to be, she holds her arms around her children. The roof and walls are gone. The burnt ground is covered in charcoal. Everything has been erased, only memories remain.
“The insurgents took our cows, burnt down our house and killed my husband. We escaped by foot, running for days until we found safety. Three of my children have taken up arms to defend the family. The last years have been terrible,” says Marol.
For the past years, she has been living in refugee camps in her home country, in Uganda and in Kenya. Now she is back in her village.
“This is where I am born, this is where I was married. My children were born here. Now my hair will turn grey soon and I cannot live anywhere else. This is where I feel at home.”
21 April 2016
Juba, South Sudan: In South Sudan’s capital people are waiting for Riek Machar to return. He has not been in Juba since he was fired from his post as vice president and the civil war broke out two and a half years ago. Disputes about the number of weapons and soldiers he is allowed to bring with him on the plane from Ethiopia have delayed his arrival in Juba. The media is impatient. The international society fears that the fragile peace agreement is about to burst.
“The fact that he has not yet arrived, puts the whole peace deal in danger,” said Norway’s ambassador to South Sudan, Tone Tinnes, in an interview with the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
On 26 April, Machar arrives in Juba. Three days later, the UN Security Council welcomes the establishing of the transitional government (TGNU) as “an important milestone” in the process of implementing the peace agreement. At the same time, 2.5 million people are displaced and according to the UN, 4.8 million people in the country are starving.
15 August 2016
Adjumani, Uganda: “Stop that lady, she has not been checked!” Two police officers run after a woman carrying luggage and a baby on her back. They grab her by the arm, dragging her back to the sign saying “Police check post” in capital letters.
Since renewed fighting broke out in Juba on 7 July, the Elegu border post in north Uganda has received more than 70,000 refugees. The planned celebration of five years of independence on 9 July was replaced by heavy fighting.
The fighting began when five governmental soldiers were killed at a roadblock by previous opposition soldiers. While Kiir and Machar met in the presidential palace the next day, many of Machar’s soldiers were killed outside. The conflict escalated, more lives were lost and once again people fled to save their lives.
The international community condemned the conflicts. In Norway, Foreign Secretary Børge Brende was concerned.
“We condemn the fighting in Juba in the strongest terms. It is unacceptable and pointless. We hold President Kiir and Vice President Machar responsible for what they have signed and committed to. The implementation of the peace agreement and political will to collaborate and do what is best for the country are crucial to stop the conflict in South Sudan,” Brende said in a press release from the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs.
The large number of refugees arriving in north Uganda creates challenges for the government and the humanitarian organisations working in the country. The amount of people has made it necessary to open more centres for reception and transit. There is a prevailing fear that a cholera outbreak will spread and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report that they lack resources to help the refugees. According to UNHCR, humanitarian organisations have received only 20 per cent of the estimated 600 million US dollars needed to assist refugees inside South Sudan and in the neighbouring countries. At the same time, the authorities struggle to make lands available soon enough to be able to send refugees to settlements in the districts.
“The large number of refugees has put an enormous pressure on the resources. We do everything we can to make sure those who need it receive help, but it is challenging. We are not enough people and the economic resources are too scarce to cover all the needs,” says Emmanuel Adowa at Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) office in Adjumani.
In the new transit centre in Pagirinya, I meet a huge number of people – too numerous to count – waiting for a place to stay. Here, almost nine out of ten refugees are women and children. Mary Magdalene Chandia, 50, coughs and asks for a bottle of water the moment we meet in the blazing afternoon sun. She has malaria and feels weak.
“When the fighting escalated, I brought my physically disabled father over the border to Uganda. Here, there is peace, but the camp is horrible. People have all sorts of diseases and we have to live on top of each other in small tents,” says Chandia.
I have a hard time taking in all she says when she tells me her detailed story about the war in her home country. Chandia is one of millions of people who over the past years have escaped from one place to another to save their lives.
“We only wish to live in peace,” says Chandia. She cannot understand that the leaders of the country continue to impose so much suffering on their own people.
Young brothers forced to flee
At the reception centre in Nyumanzi, hundreds of people are standing in line to receive today’s food ration. Because of the high number of people, the food distribution lasts for hours.
“We have to distribute lunch and dinner at the same time to make sure everyone receives their ration. If more refugees arrive, we will not have enough food,” says Jamila Tassim who works for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
The reception centre was built in 2014 to host 2,000 refugees. Today, more than 13,000 South Sudanese refugees reside here, waiting to be transported to one of the settlements. In the middle of the crowd I meet Okuny Peter, 11, and his brother Ciro Oyet, 9. When they cross the square, Peter holds his brother’s hand in a firm grip. An older man lies on the ground with a broken leg. Women and children seek shade for the burning sun. A woman breathes heavily in the stifling heat. Peter lets go of his brother’s hand and they enter one of the many tents on the square. A woman tells me that more than 100 people sleep inside the tent every night.
Peter lifts up a worn out cloth, it looks like an old curtain. He lets it fall back on the ground. Since they escaped their home country when fighting erupted in July, the two brothers have spent their nights here.
“I was at school in Juba when the fighting started. We ran as fast as we could, my brother and I. There was blood and people were killed around us. I was so afraid,” says Peter.
Their mother feared she would lose her children in the war and about one month ago, she sent them over the border to Uganda. When they arrived at the border post in Elegu, they were hungry, thirsty and exhausted. They are two of many hundreds of children who have escaped war in South Sudan.
Children are the losers from war
Save the Children is one the main organisations responsible for registering and helping children who arrive alone. New figures from the organisation show that 1,960 children crossed the border into Uganda without their parents between 7 July and 24 August. Since January 2014, 4,807 children have arrived Uganda alone. About 64 per cent of the South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are children. Many have had traumatic experiences. New figures from UNICEF show that 650 children have been recruited as child soldiers in South Sudan so far this year. Since the conflict erupted in 2013, more than 16,000 people have been recruited by armed groups in the country. At least 1,774 of them have been killed by the fighting.
Left school to go to war
I meet Lem Nyok Deng, 20, in a school by the Maaji II settlement. He used to be an ordinary school boy from the city of Malakal north in South Sudan. Then he received a weapon and went into the bush to kill.
“I wished to continue in school, but I could no longer watch people I cared about being killed. One day I decided to defeat the enemy. We were many school boys who did the same,” says Deng.
He is shaking when he thinks about all he has been through and he struggles to utter the words. He refuses to look me in the eyes when he tells about what he would rather forget.
“We hid in the bush to wait for the enemy. When they came, we started shooting. Many lives were lost that day,” he says.
It was Deng’s father who sent him to Uganda.
“My father was furious when he understood what I was up to. ‘Boys should be at school, not fighting the war,’ he said. Then he sent me to Uganda,” says Deng. He is now one of 317 refugees at the Zoka Central Primary School who receives an education through NRC’s accelerated education programme.
“When I am in school, I forget all the bad things from the war. I will fight to have an education and dream of becoming a bishop. I want my God to save me,” says Deng.
Generous refugee policies
Uganda is known for its unique and generous refugee policies. As of the beginning of the year, Uganda was home to more than 500,000 refugees according to UNHCR. Among the African countries, only Kenya and Ethiopia receive more refugees.
Over the past 50 years, Uganda has received close to eight million refugees, or 160,000 refugees every year. All those who flee to Uganda automatically receive refugee status. Here there are no typical refugee camps, but instead there are settlements where people can build houses and grow their own food.
Since hostilities broke out in South Sudan in the beginning of July, the number of settlements has increased from 16 to 19 in Adjumani district. Today, there are as many refugees as local residents in the district. The authorities are concerned.
“Our biggest concern is that the majority of those arriving are women and children. They are the most vulnerable groups and many carry traumatic experiences with them from their home country. They need psychosocial support, which we do not have the means to give them. Donors are not prioritising mental health,” says Titus Jogo who works at the local administration in Adjumani.
The West Nile region has many areas of empty land, but the authorities have a hard time to receive access to them. The newly opened area in Yumbe is the only settlement where there is still room.
“Now that the number of refugees soon will pass that of local residents, people are more negative to give away their lands. For now, we have the capacity, but if the refugees continue to arrive, that will become a problem. It is about time the political leaders in South Sudan make peace,” says Jogo.
End of August
Elegu border in north Uganda: The hostilities in South Sudan have once again calmed down and the influx of refugees has decreased. There have been a few days of calm at the border, but few believe that the peace will last.
“Although we are now in a calmer period, we can never relax. We always need to be prepared that the fighting breaks out again. I have little faith in that the hostilities in South Sudan are over,” says Frida Kajoki. She works for NRC, registering refugees at the border post in Elegu.
Titus Jogo at the local administration in Adjumani condemns the fighting in South Sudan, but says that as long as people are fleeing, the Ugandan border is open.
“In Uganda we have a law that says refugees have the same rights as Ugandan citizens. We appreciate refugees here. Today, people in South Sudan need our help. Tomorrow, it might be us who are in need,” he says.
I wonder how things have turned out for Rebecca and Agot Marol, who returned to their village in South Sudan after many years in displacement. Hoping to find the answer, I contact organisations working in the district, but it turns out that tracing two of the country’s 1.6 million internally displaced people is difficult. Are Rebecca and Marol still in the village in Payuel, building up what they lost, or are have they been displaced once again? Nobody knows.