Three days after violence erupted in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, a group of church leaders in the East African nation entreated warring factions and ordinary citizens: Don’t let political strife turn into ethnic war.
It was a desperate plea in a devolving conflict between Sudanese soldiers loyal to South Sudan President Salva Kiir—a member of the Dinka ethnic group—and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar—a member of the Nuer tribe.
Even as the South Sudan Council of Churches issued its statement calling for peace on Dec. 18, church leaders acknowledged the chaos unfolding in the capital. “Soldiers are asking civilians to identify themselves by tribes,” church leaders wrote. “And we cannot accept to be identified by our tribes, as we are all South Sudanese.”
For hundreds of soldiers and civilians—including at least one pastor—the plea fell short. On Dec. 19, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported South Sudanese soldiers had “fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas and targeted people for their ethnicity during recent fighting in Juba.”
In the capital city, most reports concerned attacks on ethnic Nuer tribal members. In the nearby city of Bor, reports emerged of attacks against the Dinka. A Sudanese radio station reported that two truckloads of bodies left a military hospital in Juba after family members didn’t come to identify the dead. One Juba resident told the station she saw nine Nuer corpses dumped near a Catholic seminary.
In the Human Rights Watch report, witnesses described soldiers conducting house-to-house searches in Juba and killing Nuer civilians, including women and children. Three independent sources told the organization that soldiers forcibly removed Simon Nyang Lam, a Nuer minister, from his house. “He thought he would be OK because he was a pastor,” a relative told Human Rights Watch. Instead, sources say the soldiers killed him.
By Tuesday, UN officials reported at least 1,000 dead in the conflict that has spread to at least six of the country’s 10 states. Many experts say the death toll is likely much higher.
Meanwhile, as many as 180,000 South Sudanese civilians have fled their homes, fearing for their safety. At least 75,000 of those civilians are seeking refuge at UN compounds ill equipped to care for masses of displaced citizens. UN officials warned of the danger of disease spreading in camps without enough sanitation and clean water.
It’s a tragic turn for a 2-year-old nation that endured decades of brutal civil war before declaring its independence from Northern Sudan in 2011. The Islamic government in the North tried to force Islamic law on the predominantly Christian and animist South for nearly 25 years. Still, Sudan’s Christian population grew dramatically, from about 1.6 million in 1980 to more than 11 million in 2010. Millions of Southerners escaped violent attacks by fleeing to neighboring countries. Some spent decades in refugee camps.
A Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought a ceasefire between the North and South in 2005, and Southerners began returning to a region resembling a wilderness after years of war and abandonment. In 2011, Southerners voted to declare their independence from Sudan and celebrated jubilantly as they became South Sudan—the world’s newest nation.
But the celebration was short-lived. Despite billions of dollars of international aid—including $300 million a year from the United States—the fledgling country stagnated. When I visited in 2012, the city of Juba was more advanced than it was during my 2008 visit, but the capital still had a Wild West feel: limited electricity, slums abounding, and an overcrowded, one-story hospital where some of the seriously ill patients camped outside and cooked their own food while waiting for treatment.
For an impoverished region with a complicated and traumatic history, becoming a well-established nation wouldn’t happen quickly. But the country also suffered from corruption in some of its government ranks, and the nation ran out of cash as officials mismanaged resources.
Many civilians blamed President Kiir for the mismanagement, and Vice President Machar became one of Kiir’s fiercest critics. The conflict wasn’t a surprise: The two men had nursed tension for years, and Machar had led an infamous massacre of Dinka civilians in 1991 during the country’s civil war. (Machar led a breakaway faction that vied for power in the South.)
By July 2013, Machar’s criticism of Kiir intensified, and he announced his intentions to run for the presidency in 2015. Kiir’s response: He fired the vice president.
Tension continued to build over the summer and fall, until fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to both men in December. The president charged Machar with attempting a coup d’état. Machar denied the charges but called for the president to step down in the days after the violence began. The conflict quickly spread to other states, as it took on ethnic dimensions that threaten to unravel the hard-fought peace.
By New Year’s Eve, both men had agreed to send delegations to hold peace talks in Ethiopia, but Machar hadn’t called for militias to stop advancing on Dinka strongholds.
Meanwhile, the United States sent special envoy Donald Booth to Juba to hold talks with Kiir and other Sudanese officials. Booth also spoke with Machar by phone. U.S. officials joined diplomats, aid groups, church leaders, and human rights advocates worldwide pleading with the warring factions to avoid plunging the country into a civil war that threatened millions of vulnerable citizens.
If South Sudan does avoid civil war, the country still faces an urgent question: How does it move forward? That’s also an urgent question for the United States and other countries trying to help the South Sudan move past crisis and toward development.
Jok Madut Jok—a former South Sudanese official who now works for the Sudd Institute in Juba—told The Wall Street Journal that economic help alone won’t solve the nation’s problems.
Jok argued that outside countries had focused on helping South Sudan build infrastructure, but had failed to help longtime factions learn how to govern together. International backers fattened Juba’s bank account, but Jok said, “What they missed is that people’s souls have to be fat in the same way.”