A breakthrough between warring factions in South Sudan on Friday provided a glimmer of hope for a nation perched on the edge of civil war. Leaders of a rebel opposition group said they would no longer demand the release of political prisoners as a precondition to a cease-fire.
It was a significant moment in a political conflict that erupted nearly a month ago between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.
The clashes quickly spread to at least six of the country’s 10 states and devolved into ethnic conflicts in some regions. (Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe. Machar belongs to the Nuer ethnic group.)
More than 1,000 people have died in the fighting, and more than 200,000 civilians have fled their homes. The United States has evacuated hundreds of American citizens working in the country, and some aid agencies have removed staff and halted operations.
The early stages of peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia brought scant encouragement, but the developments on Friday could offer hope. President Kiir initially refused demands to release 11 high-profile political prisoners loyal to the opposition, and rebel leaders refused to cease hostilities until the men went free.
Maibor Garang, a member of the opposition (and the son of South Sudan’s deceased first president, John Garang), said the rebels would no longer require the release: “We don’t think it’s fair for our people on the ground to suffer because of the suffering of 11 people.”
It’s still unclear what rebels and former Vice President Machar hope to achieve in the bloody conflict. Though Machar (fired by Kiir in July) denied accusations of mounting an attempted coup d’état, he also called for Kiir to step down in the days after the uprisings. That’s an unlikely scenario in a beleaguered country trying to establish a democratic system.
But while the political dynamics remain unclear, the suffering of South Sudanese civilians remains vivid. More than 70,000 people have sought shelter at UN compounds with severely limited resources to serve masses of people.
Meanwhile, workers at sprawling refugee camps that had been full before the crisis erupted worry they may run out of supplies in a few weeks if prolonged fighting makes supply routes a substantial security risk.
For more than three years, thousands of civilians have fled bombing campaigns in neighboring Sudan in the north. Nearly 71,000 live in the Yida refugee camp near the North-South border. The camp is also near the town of Benitu, where the fighting between South Sudanese troops and rebels has been fierce for the last few weeks.
Workers from the Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse help manage operations in Yida and say they have enough food to last through mid-February. Ken Issacs of Samaritan’s Purse says if security conditions don’t improve, supplying food to the camp will become precarious.
The agency relocated its 72 foreign staff members to Nairobi, Kenya, after fighting erupted but continued essential services through local workers. Isaacs said he expects a small number of staff members will begin slowly returning to South Sudan later this week.
But Isaacs—who has worked closely with the country for more than two decades—also says the conflict has the potential to destroy the nation that endured a brutal civil war with Sudan and declared its independence less than three years ago.
“If the fighting isn’t stopped, it isn’t a question of one political side or the other surviving,” he said. “The entire nation may not survive.”