Government forces accused of rampaging through Unity State, committing atrocities and causing mass displacement.
She’s about 65 years old. Her face has distinct traditional markings of the Nuer, South Sudan’s second largest tribe.
We find her seated pensively in a bare traditional hut they call “Tukul” in South Sudan. “This is not home,” she tells us when we visit. “My home and food was burned and my cattle stolen”.
She has been at a UN camp for displaced people in South Sudan’s administrative capital of Unity state, Bentiu, for a couple of days. Sitting around her are a dozen or so children – moulding dolls, cattle and guns using clay.
hey are her grandchildren.
She finds it difficult to find words to describe what happened at her village in Koch county, south of Bentiu.
She claims to have been raped by who she remembers as young boys dressed in military gear.
Stigma of rape
There’s a lot of stigma attached to rape, so she asks us not to reveal her identity.
When she and her family finally escaped, two of her grandchildren, both below 10 years old, had disappeared. She told me she wants to go back to look for them.
She’s still clinging to the hope that they could be alive, afraid and hiding somewhere in the swamps that surround her village. But she’s also not ruling out the fact that they could be dead. She told me she can’t live without knowing.
Her family is among more than 11,000 freshly displaced people who are seeking shelter at the UN camp, which was already crowded with roughly 50,000 others who never left since 2013 when the conflict broke out.
Many of the stories of those just arriving are consistent that government soldiers attacked them, killed their loved ones and burned their homes.
Blame on crossfire
I asked Upper Nile’s acting governor Peter GathKuoth Chuol about the accusations. He said that South Sudan’s armed force is a “national military and cannot attack its own citizens.
If houses were burned, it was because of the crossfire, not that soldiers deliberately set them on fire”. He also said that it is difficult to tell for certain who exactly is carrying out the atrocities.
What is certain is that people have been fleeing a government offensive against SPLM – the rebels led by former vice President Riek Machar in Unity State. The offensive started on the same month that peace talks were meant to resume.
There’s also been heavy fighting in neighbouring Upper Nile – the State with the only functioning oil fields. On May 21, the rebels took control of Malakal, the capital. Government troops took it back a few days later. South Sudan’s military accused the Sudanese government of aiding the new rebel offensive. Khartoum has denied any involvement in the fighting.
SPLM in opposition in Upper Nile State gained strength from the defection of a key general, Johnson Oloni, previously allied to the government.
He controls a (Shiluk) tribe militia in the region and had just received weapons and ammunition from government before his defection.
The fighting in both oil states has left many people homeless, hiding in swamps and trying to get to UN protected areas. Doctors without Borders have described the situation as alarming.
All this comes as the stage is being set for a new round of peace talks in Addis Ababa. Consultations to draw up a proper frame work for the resumption of talks are ongoing with negotiating teams drawn from SPLM (in government), SPLM (in opposition) and SPLM (former detainees).
The agenda will pretty much be around outstanding issues like the structure of the executive, a power sharing formula, integration of the military, federalism and the composition of parliament.
East Africa’s regional body IGAD (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda) led talks collapsed in March.
The organisation is now calling, sensibly, for an expanded mediation team – or IGAD Plus, which may include the AU, US, UK, Norway (TROIKA), UNSC, EU and China.
Analysts we spoke to said that the priority for IGAD Plus must be to also engage with hardliners [military commanders] from both sides of the conflict to avoid chances of their undermining the process.
They will not be at the Addis Ababa talks, but are very influential and can easily further destabilise the country.
That the final agreement must include governance reforms and reconciliation and there must be better coordination between IGAD Plus and the warring factions.
“The mediation partners must listen more and impose less,” one of the people who was present in previous talks told me. There’s also the controversial issue of sanctions. IGAD Plus must weigh very carefully how to use the pressure at its disposal.
Solid mediation strategy
According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, preparatory consultations are crucial and IGAD Plus must utilise the pre-talks period to come up with a solid mediation strategy, pay closer attention to the conflict’s regional dimension, prioritise dialogue particularly with hardline military commanders, enable the SPLM (in opposition) feel comfortable enough to rejoin the political leadership and accept a deal.
IGAD Plus must also work out a way of identifying individuals, not just armed groups, responsible for violations, so that the security council can better justify potential individual sanctions.
Many ordinary South Sudanese who have suffered so much don’t really understand the complexities of peace talks. They just want the fighting to end so that they can go back home. And they know for that to happen their leaders must somehow find a way of working together again.
The recent fighting – worst this year – has deepened mistrust between the warring factions and will likely make the talks more difficult. IGAD officials party to the preparations say this is the last chance for peace.
On July 9, South Sudan marks its fourth independence day, but millions of people who have either been displaced, lost loved ones, been unable to farm, had their homes burned and property looted will not be celebrating.