South Sudan's Vice President James Wani Igga has urged South Sudanese who have fled to Uganda to return home, reconcile their differences and help build a united nation.
Speaking to thousands of South Sudanese gathered at a university campus event organized by the South Sudan embassy in Kampala, Igga said the government in Juba is committed to resolving the ongoing conflict through dialogue.
But among the South Sudanese in the audience, there were skeptics who doubt it would be safe to return under the current circumstances.
Igga was critical of a proposal to create a power-sharing government that includes anti-government forces. He called it unwise and feared it would encourage more people to rise up against an elected government in future.
He said the elected government should be allowed to serve out its term, which is supposed to end next year. The vice president also denied that it is on the brink of collapse.
“There are people circulating a wrong message that the government of Salva Kiir will step down," he told the gathering. "We want to tell you clearly, this is very wrong and can never happen in this world. And we see this as a threat to peace in South Sudan if rebel demands are considered,” he said.
'We must address the root causes'
Some South Sudanese at the gathering said a key step toward reconciliation is to bring to justice those accused of committing atrocities during the conflict.
"We must address the root causes and I think that will help a lot,” said Episcopal pastor Daniel Lual Kuot.
The United Nations and rights groups have accused fighters on both sides of committing atrocities against civilians during the fighting, which broke out in mid-December. Mr. Kiir has called the fighting an attempted coup led by his former vice president, Riek Machar.
Early this year, the government said it had arrested soldiers accused of rape, looting, killing civilians and destruction of property when violence broke out in December. There are reports that the accused escaped from prison.
The African Union (AU) set up a commission to investigate abuses during the conflict. The high-level commission, led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, began conducting field missions to gather information in South Sudan in April.
Kuot urged the regional bloc that has been trying to broker a peace deal in South Sudan, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to ensure neither Mr. Kiir nor Machar are part of any transitional government that might be formed.
“I am afraid that if the two men... share the government, there may be another crisis ahead of us,” he said.
University student Deng Gai Gatluak said he would have liked to hear from the rebel side as well as the government on how to restore peace in South Sudan.
"If we want to have peace as South Sudanese, we must involve people from the opposition side and from the government in order for us to sit down and see the root cause of those conflicts," he said.
South Sudanese don't buy 'failed coup' narrative
Gatluak Khot, another South Sudanese citizen in Kampala, said the government needs to drop its "failed coup" narrative if it wants to reconcile communities and achieve lasting peace across the country.
"The reconciliation teams from the start are biased because they cannot drop the word of a coup and they are putting more blame on the other side. That means there is no reconciliation that will happen at all," he said.
Machar has denied that he tried to oust Mr. Kiir, telling South Sudan in Focus
in an interview
that he and others in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) merely wanted to democratize the party but were being met by resistance from the president and his backers.