Peace building is building the Kingdom of God. This God given work becomes more significant when it is done among the most vulnerable, broken and the oppressed such as the refugees. South Sudan needs peace more than anything else. This part of Africa, which is rich in fertile soil, water, minerals and more so in people have greatly suffered war and conflict since 1950s. Conflicts in the Sudan (both the north and the south) have been caused by various parties and politics since the colonial times. The root of violence goes to the British Imperialists, the Arab, rebel groups such as then Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and other tribal warlords.
Unfortunately we are not seeing peace coming in sight. Having witnessed the bloody past, it is difficult to believe the coming of peace. Down through the decades, numerous peace agreements have been signed and discarded thoughtlessly. Disunity among the people of South Sudan can be attributed to long years of oppression and the persecution of the native tribes by foreigners, denial of basic rights, systematic looting of native wealth, and other human right abuses. Unfortunately similar oppression and abuses are mitigated by the native rulers on their own fellow tribes. The oppressed have become the oppressors.
A little genesis of the violent past of the Sudan (now including South Sudan) will help us to understand the continuous war and conflict situation that prevails in the land. Now the war has become complex needing complex and drastic solution which are often difficult to find or invent.
Tribal politics is the order of the day in most African countries. Many popular politicians take solace in their tribal affiliations and go through elections backed by their tribes. They often feel obliged to support their tribes so as to retain their positions in the government and safe guard their ill-gotten wealth. South Sudan can be a best example of tribal politics. By the existence of a large number of tribes with varied cultures and interests, the situation is made worse in South Sudan.
Deep rooted tribal hatred can be attributed to the following issues: British practiced their ‘divide and rule’ policy in South Sudan as well. They favoured a few tribes over others; this instilled prejudice, jealousy, suspicion and hatred on tribes with larger population. Arabs who ruled the whole of the Sudan suppressed the indigenous tribes and people on racial and religious grounds. Pastoral tribes seem to have natural dislike and hatred on agrarian tribes. Most of the wars fought since 1955 had one or more of these above root causes.
The major wars were: In 1955 Warlord/General Joseph Lagu fought the north. After a long struggle, in 1972 peace was signed between (Muslim) North and (Christian) South. But the peace did not really prevail. Fierce war was fought by SPLA since 1983 to 2005 headed by General John Garang, until comprehensive peace was signed in 2005 giving more autonomy to the South. Having more autonomy and enjoying relative peace, many leaders of Christian south desired independence. Eventually in 2013 South Sudan became an independent nation. Unfortunately the peace was short lived. Within two years the nation broke into war scattering people and many taking shelter in refugee camps and internally displaced camps.
Given to this background, people of South Sudan are pushed into mistrust and suspicion of each other. They carry with them feelings of insecurity, low esteem and apathy. It is reflected in their day to day life and every decision they make. The battles and the mood for conflicts are heightened due to the fact that in between the wars no community dialogue was encouraged; often the peace talks involved only political leaders who held “synthetic” peace deals. Full pledged wars had roots in communities at grassroots. Until peace is restored at grassroots there can be no meaningful peace at national level. This can rightly be called “Comprehensive Peace”.
Until this kind of comprehensive peace is achieved any small incidents such as a little misunderstanding at water-points, playfields and markets can be blown into full pledged war. Suspicion and mistrust mingled with prejudice can cause little moment of irritation and annoyance can trigger into war causing enormous damage even lasting for years.
Recently there was a sting of violence in Palabek Refugee Settlement which houses about 55,000 refugees from South Sudan who belong to the following tribes: Acholi, Madi, Bari, Nuer, Dinga, Murlei, Pari, Lutuku, Lopit, Luo, Ddinga, Topasa, Balanda, and Lango. Their percentage could be Acholi – 45%, Lutuku – 15%, Lango – 10%, and other tribes such as Nuer are only about 3% or even smaller. Smaller tribes also often times feel insecure and intimidated among the larger groups.
When two individuals (O and W) of two different tribes began to quarrel on a minor issue which was escalating, the leaders tried to intervene and put order. But overnight O brought supporters from his tribe to fight. In the process W’s thumb was chopped off. W was rushed to the Health Center and the tribe of W organized for a revenge attack. When a few people got minor injuries, the leaders came in and restrained them and some suspects were handed over to the police. But the same evening, the tribe of W organized to fight the tribe O in which one of them was injured and one of W’s tribe was killed.
Now the other tribes who were until now onlookers were charged and blamed the W’s tribe for not listening to the leaders, but the accusation and the counter accusations only created more chaos. This violence can also be attributed to stress and redundancy among young people caused by COVID 19 induced Lockdown.
In situations like this there is a need for capacity building among leaders in conflict and post-conflict management. Leaders and other stakeholders need to learn about right attitude to tribes and ethnic differences. Tribes and clans should be used for learning and building culture rather than becoming source of conflict. Often most people tend to have only a superficial knowledge of their cultures and traditions. Learning deeper the meaning of culture, tradition and their history in right way will also help everyone to have right attitude to the institution of tribes and cultures. Tribes which can be good medium to learn cultures, languages and traditions that should not be misused to fuel hatred and discord.
Political and civil leaders having brought up in the same situation are unable to go beyond the existing prejudice and bias regarding tribes. They should be educated to be neutral and be balanced. In Africa cultural leaders are more listened to and they have a big influence on their people. They need to learn to be open-minded and take up leadership roles beyond their tribes and myopic ideas.
Church need to be moral voice of the society. Church should be an umbrella embracing under her shade people of all tribes and differences. When they remain neutral, they remain true voice of God. Other humanitarian partners can play educative role combining their much needed humanitarian and developmental engagements.
Salesians of Don Bosco share the lives and struggles of the refugees in Palabek by living in their midst. Now they feel concerned about the violence among groups which were non-existent in Palabek. They are taking steps to be close to the people, especially those affected by violence, by way of reaching out to them with food and a few other necessities. Their participation in the peace meetings, counselling and casual visits to the families are much appreciated. They have assured the Settlement authorities and the security forces of their support and assistance. Our peace efforts are hampered by Corona Lockdown. In the coming weeks more strategic actions are planned for execution. May God continue to help us to build bridges of peace and help us to be bridges of peace and harmony.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB – The Director.