After eight years of war, South Sudan is in the hands of a military elite that controls resources and massacres the population. What could at first be defined as an ethnic, Dinka-Nuer conflict is no longer just that. The “Somalisation” of the territory is what characterizes this war: armed groups control portions of the territory and refer to the two main parties in the struggle only on paper, while serving their self-interest. This causes a war within a war, which is not so easily defined. More and more villages are being attacked without knowing by whom and why, with extreme forms of violence typical of this conflict: mass killings, including women and children, mutilation, rape.
After the request for peace made by Pope Francis, with the unprecedented gesture of kissing the feet of the two leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, they have completely disregarded the commitments of pacification undertaken, but by now they have also lost control of the armed groups that perpetrate their brutal attacks.
The interventions of the international community were timid, including the resolution of the United Nations Security Council which renewed the embargo on the arms trade until 1 July 2022. In February 2021, UNHCR published a report presenting disconcerting data on violence in the country and on the intensification of attacks against the civilian population. For example, in the period between February and November 2020, the country was hit by a violent conflict between Dinka and Nuer militias against the Murle shepherds, and the guerrilla war has led to massive violations of human rights, including the killing and displacement of hundreds of people.
The largest refugee population in Africa is in South Sudan: about 2.2 million people have been forced to flee the country in eight years of conflict and the vast majority of these, (83%) is made up of women and children. Uganda is the state hosting the most significant number. To these are added another 2 million people internally displaced in the country.
It is in this context that President Salva Kiir dissolved Parliament in May 2021 to follow up on the peace agreements signed in the now distant 2018. Criticisms have come about the delay with which this decision was implemented; however, having not indicated the timing for the establishment of the new one, people fear that a situation of waiting will persist, without even the Parliament and with greater centralization of powers.
What is being fought for
The country of South Sudan was born on 9 July 2011, following a referendum. Two years later, in December 2013, it plunged into one of the bloodiest civil wars of all time. Initially, the opposing sides were those of President Salva Kiir and that of his former deputy Riek Machar, respectively of the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, the most dominant in South Sudan. These war fronts remain the main ones, to which are added other ethnic and control groups of portions of territory throughout the country.
South Sudan is the youngest state in the world and for this reason, its position in the international and regional balances is still to be defined. In the united Sudan, the main source of wealth — crude oil — had an outlet: the Port Sudan terminal on the Red Sea and the Khartoum regime oil pipelines that transported it. Today, South Sudan risks being an oil bubble in the middle of Africa without terminals, investments, equipment, and technologies to exploit that enormous wealth. This is the main economic issue of the war, to which that of the water resources of the Blue Nile and the precious teak wood are added.
The secession of South Sudan from the Khartoum regime, which took place with the 2011 referendum, was conquered in blood. Almost half a century of wars, the last of which lasted 22 years, from 1983 to 2005. The peace treaty that ended the conflict also set the next steps: a five-year transition period, in which the South would enjoy great autonomy and the referendum for self-determination, held on January 9, 2011, in which 98.83% of the voters expressed themselves in favor of secession. The newborn African state is an independent country today, but it has little else. The internal war is devastating it, while it is still grappling with the deep wounds of the decades of war with Northern Sudan.
Conflict, aggravated by prolonged famines, caused two million deaths and four million refugees and displaced persons, and almost total destruction of infrastructure: schools, roads, bridges, hospitals. In addition to the enormous shortcomings of the welfare state, South Sudan has faced several humanitarian crises in its short history. The first of which is linked to the mass return of 350,000 South Sudanese, who had emigrated to the Northern Regions during the war and who returned to their homeland with independence. Furthermore, in 2012, ethnic clashes broke out in various areas of the country (which continued in 2013), the most serious of which had caused thousands of deaths in the Jonglei region, with tens of thousands of displaced persons. Other humanitarian emergencies had occurred in the Southwest, along the border with Central Africa, due to the incursions of the rebel group of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Again, they occurred along the northern border, due to the clashes between the Khartoum army and the armed groups of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, two regions whose populations were unable to vote for self-determination despite having fought with the SPLA (South Sudan Liberation Army) in the war for independence, and choose to join the new Southern state.
The clashes of its first two years of life had already driven over 200,000 refugees across the border to flee. As for the country’s economic situation, it is totally dependent on oil (it constitutes 98% of the state’s revenues). 85% of crude oil reserves, with the split of the great Sudan, has remained in the South and the extraction capacity is about 350 thousand barrels per day but the only usable pipelines, built before independence, are those that cross the North. The dispute over the “right of way”, for which Khartoum demanded a very high price, led the Southern Government to stop the extractions, from January 2012 until March 2013, when they resumed following a new agreement with Khartoum. But that year, with no more crude oil revenues, plunged the already poor country into a profound economic crisis, which was one of the conditions for the resurgence of civil war at the end of 2013.
Since then, the issue has never been settled for good, and social indicators are a reflection of this. South Sudan, which has an annual population growth of 3.83% (2017 estimate) and a fertility rate of 1 woman per 5 children, has a life expectancy of only 56 years and infant mortality (under 5 years) of 92.6 children per thousand births. Illiteracy (over 15 years old) is 69%, while only 5 out of 100 children have completed primary school. The prevalence of HIV is also high and reached 2.7% (2016 estimates). Access to adequate sanitation is very low — less than 7% of the population has it — while access to drinking water is only 58.7%, which means that nearly half of the South Sudanese population drinks contaminated water.
Key figure or organization
Victoria is 16, lives in Rhino Camp in Northern Uganda, and fled the war in South Sudan. She is the mother of a beautiful girl and expecting a second child, who will arrive soon. Her husband is with her, a few years older, but both very young.
“We fled when the military arrived in our village, killing and raping.” They often kill men to get hold of women. Vittoria and her husband managed to escape just before. Two weeks of escaping: that is the time needed to reach Uganda on foot, baby tied to the chest, the two clothes they are wearing and two pots: their only asset.
She cooks some polenta in one of the two pots, the smaller one. She lets herself be photographed as she tells her story. “God will decide the name of the child I will give birth to in a few weeks”. Sitting on a wooden stool, she offers her little girl a bit of polenta.
Focus 1 – The wounded bishop
On the night of April 25, 2021, Father Christian Carlassare, a Combonian missionary and bishop of Rumbek (capital of Lakes State, South Sudan), was wounded in the legs by strangers while he was in his home. Pope Francis had appointed him on March 8 and Father Christian became, at 43, the youngest Italian bishop in the world, leading the very young Diocese of Rumbek, born only in 1975 and led, before him, by the “father of the people”, Cesare Mazzolari. Among the 12 arrests made by the South Sudanese police, there were also three priests from the diocese of Rumbek, all of the Dinka ethnic group. These arrests suggest the disturbing background in which the aggression in Carlassare would have matured, only understandable if placed in the difficult context of South Sudan: the Dinka elite do not want him at the head of the diocese, coming from a previous missionary experience in South Sudan in Nuer land “without understanding an elementary thing of missionary spirituality”, writes Father Kizito Sesana, “Father Christian has become Nuer with the Nuer, and is ready to become Dinka with the Dinka”.
Focus 2 – Refugees fleeing the war
More than 4 million South Sudanese refugees have left their land and homes to escape the ongoing war. Two million are within South Sudan itself, most of the others are in North Uganda, where there is the largest refugee population of the entire African continent. Then in Congo, Central Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Most of them are women, children, and elderly. Among the older ones, there are many who had already left their land during the long war between North and South Sudan, returned to their villages and were again forced to flee from the new internal war.