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South Sudan Conflict Fuels Humanitarian Crisis

  • Zlatica Hoke

People of South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, appear to be hostage to the conflict between rival ethnic groups of President Salva Kiir and his former right-hand man, Riek Machar. Violence has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced nearly 2 million. Many have had to leave their farms and stop producing food. Tribal frictions and adverse weather have affected farming communities outside the war zones. With rival leaders failing to restore peace, the oil-rich country is facing a serious humanitarian crisis.

Cattle farms in South Sudan's Lakes State look serene in the early morning hours. But villagers say anything can trigger a conflict with neighbors from a hostile tribe. Fighting to avenge a wrong, real or perceived, is part of the culture.

“If you just keep quiet, and you don't run after your cow and get it back, it's as if your manhood is being questioned. You are not strong, you are not a strong man. Who are you? In any community discussion you will be referred to as a coward," said Santo Domic Chol, deputy governor of Lakes State.

South Sudanese fought an intermittent civil war with Sudan until a peace agreement was reached in 2005, leading to South Sudan's independence in 2011. But two chief leaders of the south have become archenemies. Their personal conflict has flamed into a full-fledged civil war between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups for the past 14 months. The latest peace talks have failed.

“In this pastoralist community, cattle raids have always been there, but to me they have not been so destructive as our time today. And I may attribute this, too, to possession of illegal arms. In the past they were using spears, and spears are not so destructive like guns," said Henry Gidudu, peace and justice coordinator of the Catholic Diocese in Rumbek.

Since tradition demands revenge for losing a family member, more and more villagers are getting killed.

“It has become much worse. Because your brother was killed, you go and kill another one who hasn't killed your brother, and there is another one who will just go and kill. So it's a cycle, it's increasing," said Sebastian Mabor, a nurse in Rumbek.

The northern village of Nyal is somewhat isolated from the war zone and is housing some people displaced by violence. After her eldest child was killed in the civil war, Angelina Nyalony Gai, a Nuer woman, fled to Nyal with her remaining son.

"I suffered a lot, and the hunger nearly killed me. My legs were cut up because I’d fall down, start walking again, and then fall down again. Fall down, then walk," she said.

But after recent floods devastated Nyal's crops, its isolation is not so advantageous. The community largely depends on air drops of food aid.

"We don’t have food. We just go to the water and dig up the lily roots to feed the children," said Martha Nyabora, another displaced Nuer woman.

But for those who have come to Nyal for protection, the choice is simple: hunger rather than war.

The African Union countries are pushing for creation of a transitional government in South Sudan to help restore peace.

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