UPDATE (2:29 p.m.): The brutal violence in the nearly six-week civil war raging in South Sudan may be a step closer to ending: South Sudanese government officials and rebels loyal to the country’s former vice president signed a cease-fire agreement on Thursday.
The two sides began peace talks more than two weeks ago at a luxury hotel in the capital of Ethiopia, but progress has been slow, as each side rebuffed proposed terms.
The cease-fire today isn’t a peace agreement, but it aims to halt a campaign of violence that has killed thousands and left whole towns burned to the ground. Both sides agreed to lay down arms, and President Salva Kiir has pledged to release political prisoners loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.
The two sides will now begin negotiations on a broader peace agreement to address deeper problems that led to the outburst of violence in the world’s newest nation on Dec. 15. Experts cautioned that process could prove contentious, and any ceasefire reached could still be tenuous.
Humanitarian workers hope a cease-fire will allow critical relief to flow into areas largely inaccessible during the violence. More than a half-million South Sudanese have fled their homes, and many are staying in overcrowded camps or exposed hiding places outdoors.
“Until now, several parts of South Sudan were simply inaccessible,” said Perry Mansfield of World Vision in South Sudan.
“We know that there are children across the country who need humanitarian assistance. Many have been separated from their families, haven’t had a meal in days, or are injured. They need our help whether it be in protection, food, or health services, but as long as violence continues to break out, we cannot get to them.”
OUR EARLIER REPORT: As a deadly conflict continues to rage in South Sudan, more than half a million citizens have scattered, seeking refuge wherever they can find it in the beleaguered nation. Thousands have fled to ill-equipped UN compounds, while others survive in outdoor hiding places along the Nile River.
Thousands more have fled the nation, some spilling into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
John Chol Daau thinks about the day he can return to South Sudan. The Episcopal priest first fled the country in the 1980s when troops from northern Sudan drove out millions of southerners in a campaign to impose Islamic law on the region.
Daau became one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan—a group of more than 20,000 boys and young men who walked more than a thousand miles to safety after militias raided their villages
Two decades later, Daau is a minister who divides his time between his home in Kenya and ministry in South Sudan. Before fighting erupted on Dec. 15, Daau had been working to establish a Christian college and seminary in the capital city of Juba.
He was in Juba when fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those supporting former Vice President Riek Machar. The two sides have since convened peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia, but it’s unclear whether they’re any closer to a cease-fire in a conflict that threatens to plunge the nation into civil war.
Daau visited the community hospital in Juba four days after the fighting began, and said he saw “so many dead bodies wrapped in white bags.” Reports emerged that soldiers from Kiir’s Dinka tribe had attacked civilians and soldiers from Machar’s Nuer tribe in Juba.
Days later, more reports surfaced that soldiers loyal to Machar conducted brutal reprisal attacks on Dinka in nearby regions. The BBC reports that fighting has reduced to the town of Bor to ashes, and survivors say rebel troops slaughtered patients in a local hospital.
Daau left Juba 10 days after the fighting began for an important errand: His wife was due to give birth to their child in Kenya. When I spoke with Daau in early January, he said he hoped to return to South Sudan soon to offer pastoral care to those who were suffering, and to continue his work on the college. Episcopal church leaders in the country have already visited camps for displaced people, bringing prayers, comfort, counsel, and gospel teaching to those in need.
Over the last couple of weeks, providence has allowed Daau to care for his family in Kenya: His son, Abraham, was born on Jan. 15. The healthy baby boy weighed 7 pounds and 6.5 ounces, and his mother is recovering well.
In an email, Daau offered details about naming his son. He and his wife followed the South Sudanese tradition of asking an elder family member to give the child a family name. Daau dispatched his brother in Juba to track down an elderly uncle, who declared the family name: “Akol.”
South Sudanese often pick Christian names for their children as well. Daau said the practice has waned a bit, as some Africans connect the idea to British colonialism, but Daau and his wife think of such names as “symbols to imitate biblical characters or as a way to retell our Christian story in the lives of believers.”
The couple asked a spiritual mentor—also the pastor who performed their wedding ceremony—to choose a Christian name. He chose “Abraham,” which means “father of many” and brings a reminder that the gospel transcends the ethnic and tribal identities that often divide nations.
Abraham is the second son born to Daau and his wife, but Daau said the joyous occasion is mixed with grief. “Abraham has the privilege to be born in the hospital, but thousands of children currently in South Sudan have no access,” he wrote. “We enjoy these services while grieving and remembering thousands of women and children currently suffering in South Sudan.”