THE FORGOTTEN: an ongoing history of violence in South Sudan

By Dave Jankowski

Early this week, 23 high-ranking, rebel generals escorted by 3,000 troops marched into the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Heavily armed and preceded by tanks, the rebel leaders are preparing the way for their commander, Riek Machar, to begin implementing the August 2015 peace deal. Government and rebel representatives hope to create a national unity government that can put an end to ongoing violence. The two-year civil war has left more than 50,000 murdered and a population on the brink of starvation after attacks on villages displaced millions, creating famine-like conditions in much of the country. Whether the rebel forces will be met with acceptance or further bloodshed remains to be seen; however, one thing is certain: the people of South Sudan drastically need peace.

The War for Independence

28 States of South Sudan as established in 2015. CC BY-SA 4.0.

After 20 years of war, the loss of more than 1.5 million lives, and displacement of an additional four million, South Sudan declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011. Among the displaced were the now infamous, “Lost Boys,” groups of more than 30,000 children from the targeted Dinka and Nuer ethnic factions who fled genocide, the burning of their communities, and the rape of their families and themselves for the promise of a new life.

The boys who survived the trek would become a symbol of hope for the new nation; a nation they trusted would remain untarnished by Sudan’s legacy of conflict. South Sudan, as an autonomous state, could finally be at peace. The country was optimistic, as the once forgotten people would finally be represented by a government of their own, one that would shape a prosperous and peaceful tomorrow. Five years later, this dream has become a nightmare of misery and violence.

The World’s Youngest Nation

A South Sudanese girl at Independence festivities. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

In 2011, the future looked bright as 98.8% of the South Sudanese population voted for independence from Sudan. By July, the world’s newest nation began the arduous process of building peace and stability in a country ravaged by war. The possibility of ending decades of war and persecution seemed enough to unite one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse nations in the world.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, then Governor of South Sudan, took the reins as President of the young nation. In an effort to bolster peace, the new president selected a mixed-ethnic cabinet of both Nuer and Dinka, and called for the South Sudanese people “to forgive, though we shall never forget” the atrocities perpetrated by Sudan.

This sentiment was short-lived as contested oil-rich border territories sparked a Sudanese war less than a year after its independence. After six months of invasions, bombings, and occupations, the two nations were able to reach an agreement to deescalate in September 2012, placing a political Band-Aid to resolve or implode at a later date.

With the nation still reeling from war, President Kiir removed his entire cabinet, including the vice president Riek Machar due to accusations that Machar was planning a coup. In December 2013, a power struggle between Kiir and Machar separated the country’s military along ethnic lines and devolved into a bloody civil war. Kiir called on the government’s army, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to combat the rebel army, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement In Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by the former vice president.

South Sudanese man holding HK G3. By Steve Evans – Flickr: South Sudan 022, CC BY 2.0,

Throughout the South Sudanese civil war, government and rebel forces have been accused of heinous crimes and atrocities. Civilians, fleeing carnage and chaos, have described horrific accounts of ethnically-targeted killings, mass rape and abduction, families burned alive in their homes, and countless other acts of violence. Over two million people have fled into neighboring countries to escape the ongoing brutality.

Conflict Without End

After years of war and months of broken ceasefire agreements, South Sudanese factions agreed to sign a peace deal in August 2015. Both sides committed to cease fighting and appoint a transitional government within 90 days. The transitional government would preside for 30 months until elections were held. However, despite the agreement, fighting endures, no transitional government has been established, and horrifying atrocities continue unabated.

A recent United Nations Human Rights Council report cited particularly shocking incidence of sexual violence and mass killings. The report described widespread and ongoing violations of human rights that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amnesty International documented the suffocating of 60 men and boys in a shipping container in the town of Leer this past October.

Hundreds of people arrive daily to Awerial having fled from the conflict in and around the town Bor. People travel through the night on barges with the little they could grab from home. Oxfam is assisting people with clean water and sanitation in the area, as well as promoting good hygiene practices. Flickr Creative Commons, Oxfam East Africa.

The civilian death toll in South Sudan has reached tens of thousands but much like Sudan’s Darfur region and the second Sudanese civil war, the current conflict receives little media attention. The US government and media have remained relatively silent on the atrocities and high level of human suffering. Perhaps long gone are the days when ideals drove our actions and presidents would make grand statements like John F. Kennedy’s proclamation:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

The US is the single largest provider of humanitarian assistance to South Sudan. In 2014, USAID contributed $304.6 million in aid to the nation and the US is awaiting congressional approval of $265 million in predominantly humanitarian aid, $173 million of which is scheduled to address ongoing food scarcity. US contributions and efforts have certainly lessened suffering for millions of South Sudanese; however, the US should take a leading role in signaling the importance of ending the violence in South Sudan. A peaceful resolution that allows for the stabilization of South Sudan will serve its people far better than humanitarian efforts. Peaceful countries provide the breeding grounds for human and economic development, which creates space for opportunity and innovation.

It is time for the US to step in to help stop the violence and facilitate the enforcement of the peace agreement between the government and the opposition forces. This does not mean the US should send in forces. The US should abide by the motto of the African Union and allow for “African solutions to African problems.” However, the exercise of US influence, through arms embargos or economic incentives, will do much to persuade regional leaders and South Sudan to more eagerly pursue the peace process.

A first-hand account of South Sudan’s IDP camps: “What is our fate? We are suffering all kinds of sickness, insecurity, and all kinds of violence.” Flickr Creative Commons, Day Donaldson.

Regional leaders like Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, who mediated the August peace deal, should help stabilize the fledgling government and push it toward fulfilling the terms of the agreement. With help from neighboring nations and the exercise of US influence, President Kiir and, recently reappointed, Vice President Machar will receive ample incentive to work together to assemble the agreed upon transitional unity government and develop a constitution for a peaceful and stable South Sudan.

We can no longer stand by as mass slaughters, rape, and other human rights violations dehumanize millions in a region that has not seen peace in more than 30 years. US involvement through strategic sticks and carrots will drastically reduce human suffering, save countless lives, and allow our aid dollars to be used to develop a nation rather than to address the aftermath of ongoing conflict.

Take a moment to conceptualize the 35,000 enslaved, over 50,000 murdered, countless charred villages where people are burned alive and women and children are violently raped. Do not allow these suffering individuals to be forgotten.

Women and children gather to see how water treated by Oxfam runs clean and clear from the tap. Oxfam is currently producing over 300,000 litres of clean water a day for a population of around 80,000 displaced people who have settled in Awerial county. Flickr Creative Commons, Oxfam East Africa.

President Bill Clinton expressed his regret over the lack of US response to the Rwandan genocide, in which the macabre became ordinary. Clinton reminded the American people, “we owe to all the peoples of the world who are at risk because each blood letting hastens the next, and as the value of human life is degraded and violence becomes tolerated, the unimaginable becomes more conceivable.”

How can you ensure the unimaginable does not become a chilling reality of human suffering? Send this article to your Senator and Representative asking for US action, or at a minimum, to signal to the government of South Sudan, that the people of the United States are taking notice. Do not allow the millions of men, women, and children who have suffered for more than three decades to remain forgotten.



David is a recent graduate of the Patterson School. He is a former professional athlete with a passion for diplomatic relations, international trade, and international athletics. Contact David with any questions, comments or opportunities:


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