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In Midst of Conflict, South Sudan Marks Birth of its Army

Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers patrol a road in Mathiang near Bor, Jan. 31, 2014.
Amidst a five-month-old conflict and a growing humanitarian crisis, South Sudan marked the 31st anniversary on Friday of the day in 1983 when soldiers fired the first gunshots in the two-decade war with Khartoum.

The soldiers who fired those shots in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, on May 16, 1983 formed the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which became the national army of South Sudan when the country celebrated independence less than three years ago.

But SPLA soldiers have never served in a true peacetime army. The country has been wracked by simmering rebellions, disputes with the north that sometimes turned violent, and, most recently, a domestic conflict that has claimed thousands of lives since December and pushed the country to the edge of a humanitarian disaster.

Learn lessons from SPLA's fight for freedom

Speaking during celebrations to mark the SPLA anniversary, President Salva Kiir urged South Sudanese to learn lessons from the SPLA's fight for freedom and amicably resolve differences that have led to the current war, which began as a political row between the president and his opponents in an SPLA off-shoot, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party.

“Many lives were lost as the result of noble struggle but within the course of struggle itself, unjustifiable losses occurred many times among South Sudanese themselves because of a brother fighting another brother," he said.

He called on South Sudanese not to lose sight of the promise of the young country and urged civilians who have fled their homes to return and resume their livelihoods. He vowed to protect all of them.

"I have a moral obligation to make sure that all the people in South Sudan are saved and to make sure that all the people in South Sudan are united," he said.

"And because of this, I will have to call again on my brothers and sisters who are in the UNMISS camps to come out and join their own brothers and sisters and stay in their own houses,” he said, referring to some 80,000 people who are sheltering at compounds and bases of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan -- some of th
I have a moral obligation to make sure that all the people in South Sudan are saved and to make sure that all the people in South Sudan are united.
President Salva Kiir
em since December.

Many South Sudanese have said they do not feel the situation in the country is safe enough to allow them to return home, even though Kiir and Machar signed a new cessation of hostilities deal a week ago.

The United Nations and aid agencies have accused both the SPLA and opposition fighters of committing atrocities against civilians.

In his speech, Mr. Kiir said he would "not accept" that any government soldier should "take the law into his or her own hands to kill other citizens in the name that he or she is supporting me...'

"He is not supporting me and I will not accept that," he said.

The president has set up a committee to investigate allegations of the killing of civilians by SPLA and rebel soldiers. On Friday, Mr. Kiir said the committee "has to see into it that all these people who committed these crimes must be punished."

"If you have killed a person, you must be punished with death also,” he said, adding that if atrocities go unpunished, South Sudan will not move forward.

Mr. Kiir called on forces on both sides of the on-going conflict to stop revenge killings, which only serve to prolong the conflict. He reiterated his readiness to respect the peace deal he and Machar signed last week in Addis Ababa. The recent agreement was violated within days, with both sides blaming the other.