WAU, SOUTH SUDAN - Some residents of South Sudan's Wau town say relations between the army and civilians have improved significantly over the past few months thanks to steady confidence-building efforts. Many civilians say they no longer fear men in uniform, but residents are also urging the government to pay soldiers their salaries on time so they don't resort to looting in order to feed their families.
Relations between the two sides deteriorated in 2016 when violence broke out in Wau, forcing thousands to flee to churches, U.N. compounds and into the bush. Civilians accused some soldiers of harassment, looting property, and even killing civilians. Army officials accused some civilians of supporting the armed opposition.
Two non-governmental organizations, Safer World and the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), have been organizing forums in Wau over the past few years to improve relations between civilians and the armed forces.
Speaking at a forum Tuesday on the status of civilian-military relations in the Wau area, citizens said things are better now, and it's not unusual to see soldiers and civilians speaking face to face, shopping together, or traveling together.
No guns, better relations
Sarah Joseph Kigo, who resides in Wau's Lokoloko neighborhood, said the main reason civilians no longer fear the army is that most soldiers no longer carry guns.
"Nowadays, army and civilians are able to move hand in hand and they intermingle together in market places. They no longer move with their guns. That shows that their commanders are implementing what we have been telling them — to keep all guns in store," Kigo told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Ambelia Mario Safu, who resides in Wau's Jebel Khair neighborhood, one of the hardest hit areas during the fighting, said unlike in the past, she now regularly visits her guardian outside the town. Mario said soldiers probably looted civilian property because they are poorly paid.
"Soldiers don't have food, they don't have money, they are human and they need to provide for their children. Even they need to eat and drink. They also need to live as normal people but they can't afford that," Safu said.
Mario and Kigo both said more needs to be done to educate South Sudanese about respecting the law.
Child soldiers returned
Major Salva Mathok is head of child protection services in the Wau-based Fifth Division of the army, the South Sudan Peoples' Defense Forces (SSPDF). He says reuniting more than 20 child soldiers with their families contributed positively to improving relations between civilians and the army.
"We screened almost 22 children from a mechanized division which was based in Mapel, and we hand them over to UNICEF. UNICEF is the one responsible for those children who are associated with the army, to arrange their screening and also to arrange their reunification of these children with their families," Major Mathok told South Sudan in Focus.
Colonel Awan Deng Amum heads Moral Orientation at the SSPDF's Fifth Division. He agrees the army must reform its image, adding it will continue to engage with civilians and NGOs while the government reforms the army.
"There will be a great training of soldiers, officers NCOs and men so that they know their functions. What we are doing now we just train them about [the] constitution also the laws of the army and some other laws. That is why we are attending all the workshops always so that our relationship is normalized with civilians," Colonel Amum said.
Stephen Robo Musa, CEPO regional director, said three years of working with the army and civilians has produced positive results.
"The army has understood that the civilians are not their real enemy but they are more than people who need their protection, and also they are concerned about their rights as well. So, that ownership can really bring more sustainability or peace and also security in the state," the director said.