Sun, 31 May 2020

South Sudan Activists Hope to Unify Divided Nation

Voice of America
01 Apr 2020, 07:35 GMT+10

JUBA - After years of civil war, South Sudan's new transitional unity government is urging citizens to work towards reconciliation and forgive perpetrators of violence. Several public and private initiatives are in place to help the South Sudanese people build a peaceful future. But will the measures work in a nation with so many deep scars?

Thirty-one-year-old Junior Dau is sitting in the parlor of his home, gazing at photos of his slain cousin, who was killed as a soldier fighting in the civil war that broke out in 2013.

Three of Dau's siblings also died in the war, and his mother was tortured when rebel fighters dunked her into a water tank.

"My mom was put in the water, she fainted four times and that is one thing that has made her not come back to South Sudan. She hates it so much," he said.

After losing so many family members to the conflict, Junior was left with resentment and bitterness towards other ethnic communities in South Sudan.

"So I had in mind, I want to get a gun so I can get revenge," he said.

Other South Sudanese have similar feelings. An estimated 400,000 people died in the civil war, and the violence has left deep scars on the nation, with ethnic communities pitted against one another.

Power-sharing deal

In February, rival politicians President and his former deputy Riek Machar formed a transitional unity government after more than a year of negotiation and delay.

Political analysts like Dr. James Okuk of the University of Juba are cautiously optimistic that this power-sharing deal, unlike others, will take hold and allow the nation to begin to heal.

"It is a start but the task is overwhelming. We hope they will be up to the task, particularly reconciliation, which really requires a lot of time, requires a lot of effort. The political leaders have created these grievances by making the civilians to take sides in these political quarrels and taking sides has created these enmities among communities and with peace coming back, I think it's time to mend those broken relations," he said.

Mending broken relations is exactly what a recently formed government National Dialogue Committee is trying to do. Dr. Francis Deng, South Sudan's first ambassador to the United Nations and a scholar on conflict management, is putting his expertise to use as a committee member.

He said tackling complex issues such as how to administer justice for war-related atrocities will not be easy.

"One line of reasoning is let's forgive and forget. That's one line of reasoning. The other line of reasoning is that too much harm has been done, people have been victimized, massacres have taken place. Crimes have taken place. Here you come to another point of view. The African perspective generally is to try to reconcile, maybe compensate and not talk in terms of punishment," said Deng.

The government is now supporting what Deng describes as the African approach towards reconciliation.

On the streets of Juba, several peace advocacy billboards display phrases, such as "It's time to forgive."

At the University of Juba, students meet under a large tree to learn about how to give psychosocial support to those dealing with bitterness.

The class is organized by Vivean Peter, a 33-year-old woman who had her own pain to work through after a rival ethnic group gunned down her husband. After his death, she studied psychology and counseling and now, she finds hope and healing in training therapists.

She takes a particular interest in helping counsel youth who can easily join militia forces to carry out revenge.

She said, they are the most vulnerable demographic, needing psychological support.

Christianity is the major religion in South Sudan and churches are also making an effort to restore peace. In another part of Juba, young activists have organized an event called Peace Camp. It offers a safe space for young people to talk about the pain of war.

The organizer, Lupai Samuel Stephen, was displaced by the war and grew up in Uganda.

"The Peace Camp brings people together to be able to create relationships on a personal level so you get to meet someone from a certain community that you always looked at as an enemy."

Initiatives like these will not solve South Sudan's greater problems, but activists hope they can make small positive changes, and rebuild a nation torn apart by war.

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