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What can UN International Day of Peace mean for South Sudan?

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The determination, courage, and commitment of ordinary South Sudanese working to bring peace to war-torn South Sudan should be honored daily.

But today is a wonderful occasion to do that. Sept. 21 is the annual observation of the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, a day the U.N. describes as “strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.”

As the world reflects on the day’s meaning, what is striking in the definition is the word “within.”

Wars between states are increasingly rare. But civil wars and internal conflicts and unrest continue to haunt the globe. Nowhere is this more evident than in South Sudan. As Amnesty International notes, 4 million South Sudanese have been displaced from a five-year conflict in which tens of thousands have died and as many as 7 million need humanitarian assistance.

Two years ago, two South Sudanese political rivals, President Salva Kiir and former vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace agreement many hopes will end this terrible war.

Caution, though, is the watchword here. Previous peace agreements in South Sudan have been quickly broken.

“In spite of the peace proclamation, we do not see any signs of [peace]. Most of the local people are skeptical about it,” An activist told NCMP.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir is welcomed by supporters on his return from peace talks in Kampala July 9 at the Juba Airport. As South Sudanese peace negotiations tackled the last outstanding issues, church leaders called for genuine dialogue, healing and trust building, so that politicians have the will to implement a peace pact. (CNS / Reuters / Andreea Campeanu)

The extreme level of bloodshed, economic meltdown coupled with the pandemic is one reason for skepticism. The overall violence in South Sudan, to quote Amnesty International, has resulted in “civilian suffering on a staggering scale.”

Neither side has availed itself well, with human rights abuses occurring by all military parties. In its most recent report on South Sudan, released some months back, Amnesty International accused government forces and their allied militias of a military offensive earlier this year in Unity state. Amnesty International said what happened amounted to war crimes. According to the United Nations, hundreds of civilians were killed.

That’s the rub: the deaths of so many civilians. People are tired of being victims of war.

“The people here cannot escape. They are too poor to become refugees. There are no boats here heading to foreign shores, but if there were, most of the South Sudanese could not pay to board them,” as explained by most help providers in South Sudan.

Working to uphold human dignity in a war environment is never easy, particularly when it often feels like the country’s rival political leaders don’t share the same commitment.

The situation in South Sudan is increasingly anarchistic and one sometimes wonders what is the point of endless peace talks between leaders who are not in control of the opposing forces they are supposed to be leading.

“The people long for peace but it has not come. No wonder people are weary of peace agreements.”

The aftermath of acts of violence from South Sudan’s civil war in and around Juba, South Sudan’s capital, in May 2017 (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Ethnic differences are sometimes blamed for the civil war. But as many South Sudanese explained, political leaders, have more often than not exploited those differences for their own political gain. The result is more violence.

On an international day dedicated to peace, that fact is inspiring and worth celebrating. But so is Magnify’s cautionary note: “We need prayer, great leadership, and hope in God.”

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