The shocking and heart wrenching carnage in South Sudan continues its alarming dissent into one of history’s greatest humanitarian tragedies, as horrific tales of mass killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and wanton destruction continue unabated. Since the outbreak of violence on the night of December 15, 2013, it is estimated that 10,000 people have been killed, while a cursory glance at the rotting corpses strewn over the length and breadth of the world’s youngest nation bespeaks of a far more colossal event. Among those fortunate enough to escape death, nearly 100,000 have been driven into undermanned, under-equipped UN makeshift camps where they face starvation, illnesses, and further attacks. A million others have been displaced from their homes while some have fled the country, condemned into exile in camps abroad. And these numbers are only expected to balloon to some 3.2 million in the coming weeks and months.
Origins of the current war between the Dinka tribe and the Nuer tribe
From what began as a mere political discord within the ruling party, the ongoing fighting at once assumed tribal undertones as friction built up between President Salva Kiir (of the Dinka tribe) and his subordinates, notably his former vice President Dr. Riek Machar (of the Nuer tribe). What set off the actual violence on that fateful night continues to be the subject of scrutiny. Kiir accuses Machar of staging a failed coup; the latter denies it and charges the President of concocting a plot that allowed him to round up and imprison his political opponents. Validity of these claims aside, what the world witnessed in Juba upon its eruption and onwards was the systematic slaughter of innocent Nuer civilians by Dinka armed forces, followed by an immediate split within the national army. Incensed by the heinous killings of their kin, the Nuer mounted a retaliatory campaign targeting and indiscriminately killing the Dinka across the country. It’s now been months, and with the fratricide in full gear, the battle lines have clearly been drawn; the government, ostensibly Dinka-led, versus a predominately Nuer-led rebellion. And as these factions now careen towards a genuine civil war, innocent communities suspected to be sympathizers of the opposing camp stand to bear the brunt of the deadly violence. Given this glaring fact, concerns are growing that the unfolding could be a prelude to an event the scale of Rwanda’s gruesome genocide, which was also initially a political conflict seized upon by unscrupulous individuals to malign and pit one ethnic community against another.
Disturbing as it is, this deadly and peculiar ethnic turn of events was not entirely surprising to those who’ve paid mind to the country’s history and composition. South Sudan is a patchwork of some 64 tribes that speak an array of languages, espouse a variation of cultures, religions, customs, traditional practices, cosmologies etc. They range in population; some as few as in the hundreds and others in the millions. Many can credibly trace their footprints as far back to the ancient northeastern civilizations of Kush, Merowe, Nubia and Egypt. Indeed there have historically been strong ties between the disparate communities, many of whom in fact share common ancestry and continue to intermarry to this day. By and large however, and against the positive gains of these age-old interactions, the people have mostly maintained their single-minded allegiance and membership to their tribal citadels, predispositions that are frequently reinforced by their mutual hostilities. Inter-communal wars have been a permanent feature of the historical relations between most of the tribes, though the triggers may vary from one incident to the next. Among the myriad causes are territorial disputes, quite common and have often culminated in bloody showdowns. Livestock has been as much a curse as it’s been a blessing. Communities have for centuries carried out deadly raids against each other to improve their economic lots. Often included in the spoils of war, women and children are especially vulnerable as they’re frequently abducted and almost invariably never heard from again. Even in the midst of this blazing war today, some are seizing the chaos as opportunity to raid other communities. Predictably, these internecine feuds have over the annals engendered deep mistrust and gaping fissures between the communities. And it is precisely these underlying vitriolic sentiments; these unresolved bitter grudges that have made it so easy for political disagreements to spiral out of control and take tribal dimensions.
A short lasting peace starting in 2005 in a history of external and internal wars
Further compounding the internal violence is a perennial foreign aggression. South Sudan is a nation whose history is most glaringly punctuated by armed struggles against colonialism, oppression, and alien subjugation. It is a country that gained its independence two years ago following 23yrs of a relentless armed crusade against the successive tyrannical regimes of Sudan. That war was essentially the climax of a long bloody struggle that spans back to the resistance movements against the British colonialists in the late 19th century. Given this sobering fact, generations of South Sudanese cannot be said to have had a transient taste of real and genuine peace in recent memory. Instead the country’s single nurturing diet since its days as an embryo has been one violent struggle after another for freedom. It remains today a fragile nation conceived out of the ghastly depravities of these incessant wars against those who seek to enslave and subjugate them, violent struggles whose cost to humanity has simply been unfathomable. Just in this last war that officially began in 1983 and which culminated in the signing of a peace agreement in 2005, the death toll, according to most estimates, is well over 2.5 million. It also displaced over 4 million civilians, some of whom became habitual refugees desperately fleeing one country to the next in search of the ever-elusive peace and stability.
Devastating impacts of succeeding wars on society and individual psyches
It goes without saying that a permanent state of war, such has been the case in South Sudan, entails some insidious and powerful consequences on a society. In addition to the inevitable desensitization to violence, trauma and its derivatives are usually prominent features of the collective consciousness in many such places. Almost everyone has been directly, and negatively so, impacted by the wars, for which our communities were decidedly the battleground and theater for much pain and anguish. Forever scarred and grief-stricken, most can narrate harrowing tales of loved ones killed, maimed, and raped in front of them. Families kidnapped and ripped apart, all but assured to never see each other again. Children barely of school-age recruited as soldiers and exposed to the horrors of war. Families constantly and violently uprooted from one place to the next, instilling a neurotic and permanent state of anxiety. Parents murdered and homes set ablaze, scores of children tread thousands of miles to refugee camps in faraway countries, often watching helplessly as their ranks succumb to starvation and thirst, as they drown and are voraciously preyed upon by wild animals. Once at the refugee camps, the hardships take on a new form but remain nonetheless formidable and psychologically devastating. After all of this, most just quietly integrate into society without any sort of counseling or treatment rendered.
Breaking the circle of violence with the help of the international community
A social fabric weaved out of this gut-wrenching tale of misery, with a social ethos that has entrenched violence in its very constitution, and which cannot extricate itself from the parochial and malignant definition of TRIBE, can only portend a single destiny for its people, VIOLENCE. This is especially true in the absence of prudent and farsighted leadership. The current state of affairs, the carnage, the enmity, is firmly rooted in the corpus of the historical social ills, for which even a superficial attempt to address had never been made. South Sudanese must reconcile as a people. They must come to terms with the historical misfortunes that have planted only pernicious seeds in their wake in order to have a convincing chance at ending the current bloodshed. Resolution of the conflict requires strong voices and inclusion of all stakeholders as well as the support of the international community.