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Conflict : reasons for increasing Optimism

It was reported three days ago that the SPLA has begun assessing areas to move the army 25 kilometres outside Juba as stipulated in the peace agreement signed last month. The Chief of General Staff, Paul Malong and the head of the Presidential Guards, Marial Chanuong, with the help of a GPS company, have begun marking the coordinates of locations for new army barracks. According to General Malong, the demilitarization of Juba will begin once the new locations are approved by the general command. Speaking in New York, the Vice-President of South Sudan, Wani Igga, said that the decision by the South Sudanese government to order the national army (SPLA) out of the capital Juba is a sign of good faith in line with implementation of the recently signed peace agreement. This is, indeed, an encouraging step. It might also have the effect of reducing some of the law and order problems as soldiers are widely believed to have been responsible for the spate of break-ins and robberies.

A second reason for optimism is that the two major parties in the conflict have been making serous efforts to discourage ’rogue’ generals, with their personal militias, to stop fighting. When fighting continued near Malakal after the signing of the agreement, Generals from both sides went to Malakal to convince the armies there to stop fighting. Yes, there are still occasional outbreaks of violence but there does seem to be a real effort to establish an effective ceasefire. It may also be the case that neither side has the funds to keep fighting! Yesterday, for the first time in recent months, a WFP barge was permitted to cross the Nile carrying food to the suffering people of Wau Shilluk.

A third indicator that there is now a determination to implement the latest peace agreement is the withdrawal of Ugandan troops. This withdrawal is reported to have commenced and will be completed by October 10th.

The fourth positive sign is that there continue to be talks, albeit moving very slowly, towards the formation of a transitional government. At the same time, there have also been various peace initiatives by the Churches making it clear that the will of the people is for a lasting peace.

The fifth indicator, it seems to me, which may surprise some, is the involvement of Russia. Russia recently played a key role at the UN Security Council in blocking a US initiative to impose financial sanctions on South Sudan’s army chief of staff. Both the Sudanese and South Sudanese foreign ministers had asked Russia to oppose sanctions. I don’t see further sanctions as helpful at this stage. In a press statement last Friday, Russia’s Ambassador to Khartoum, Mirgayas Shirinskiy, confirmed his government’s keenness to play a positive role in normalizing and promoting diplomatic ties between Sudan and South Sudan. Shirinskiy also said Russia will provide the appropriate conditions to achieve economic and political development in both countries. South Sudan desperately needs such economic assistance.

A sixth positive sign is the improved relationships within the UN camp in Malakal. There had been real tension and occasional fighting between the different ethnic groups within that camp but last Sunday – so Solidarity member, Father Mike Bassano reported – all groups came together in a new location for a joyful celebration of the mass. Healing will be a long slow process but this is a good start.

A seventh reason for optimism are the various reports from the leaders of the series of trauma healing workshops being organised by the Association of Religious in South Sudan. It is evident that the people are anxious for a time of healing, forgiveness and renewed optimism to take hold. The continued accompaniment of the people by committed religious, donor partners, many inspiring persons working with great dedication for NGOs and the UN, assures the people they are not abandoned. Indeed, the pressure applied by the governments of other countries continues to be a key factor in making the leaders seek a permanent peace for South Sudan.

No doubt the progress will be slow and even, at times, discouraging. Yet there are good signs and reasons to be optimistic that South Sudan is finally emerging from the senseless conflict that erupted in late 2013. The people want peace and restoration of normal living, poor as that may be. Surely, it is not much to as.

– Br Bill