Monday, September 07, 2015

218.4 - More tragedy, still hope in South Sudan

More tragedy, still hope in South Sudan

I have talked about this a few times before. I don't know exactly why I do since I know few if any of you are interested in this except perhaps philosophically, but this is a story I have been following at least to some degree for years. I don't know why this particular world tragedy affects me more than others do, but I have found it a particularly sad tale. Maybe it's because it is so marked with hopes being raised and then being shot down - usually literally.

It's the case of South Sudan. The borders of Sudan, in the words of the BBC's Southern Africa correspondent, "seemed to have been drawn up on the back of an envelope by the colonial administration," resulting in a nation with a largely Muslim, Arabic north being stitched together with a largely Christian and animist black African south.

You can predict the result: Civil war came to Sudan i 1955 as the south tried to break away from the north. A settlement was reached in 1972 but it didn't resolve the basic problems. So civil war broke out again in 1983 and lasted for 22 bloody years. Two million died, the largest death toll of any war since World War II. Four million more were driven from their homes. Finally, when both sides were drained of blood and exhausted, an agreement was reached that allowed the south some autonomy for six years to be followed by a vote whether or not to become independent.

Despite obstacles, that vote came, on schedule, in 2011 and the vote for independence was nearly 99 percent. South Sudan became the world's newest nation. And it is, today, still the youngest nation on the planet. Hopes were sky high.

For a short time. Without an external opponent to override local ethnic and tribal rivalries and conflicts, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, turned on itself. The leaders of the two biggest factions, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, were, in the new government, president and vice-president - but soon Kiir was accusing Machar of fomenting a coup and Machar was accusing Kiir of oppressing and trying to destroy the opposition and it rapidly escalated into a new civil war in December 2013.

In the time since, the pattern has been months of fighting followed by supposed ceasefires which have soon broken down, leading to more months of fighting and new supposed agreements.

Salva Kiir                               Riek Machar
Well, about two weeks ago, Machar, the main rebel leader and former vice-president, agreed to a compromise peace settlement. What's important here is that this is a proposed settlement, not just a ceasefire. But President Kiir stalled, missing a deadline for reaching an agreement and saying he needed more time and had "reservations" about the agreement and how it was reached.

Credit where it's due, the Obama White House made no secret of its "deep disappoint" that Kiir was "squandering" the opportunity to bring peace to South Sudan. Kiir was stalling for time, and the White House in effect told him "you have no time." On August 26, Kiir signed.

So once again there is hope.

And again, there are already reports of violations of the ceasefire and each side is accusing the other of being the guilty party.

However, we shouldn't give up that fragile hope just yet. In chaotic situations like this, it is rare for a ceasefire to take immediate full effect, that is, for all fighting to stop completely and immediately. More common is a rapid tapering off and watching for that pattern is a way of judging if both sides are serious about this.

In fact, it's even more important to hold off judgment for a bit here because it's not even clear that all of the rebel units are under Machar's control. Fighting may be getting generated by small, independent groups. Which is both good and bad: good because it would likely mean that large-scale, nationwide fighting will not occur; bad because small, regional conflicts could go on for some time.

The conclusion I would draw here is that if I can come back next week without having to note a significant renewal of fighting or a breakdown of the frankly tenuous peace accord, one which I have to say still has a lot of "and a player to be named later" about it, but if I can come back next week and say the ceasefire is holding for the most part, then we can at least hope that the people of South Sudan will have enough time, enough of a respite, to bury their dead.

And the fact that merely that is something to be hoped for is a measure of just how great the tragedy is.

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