The children dance under the mango tree wearing paper hats with crayon-written messages of peace.
Their parents wait patiently in the sweltering hot sun. Together with hundreds of other families they have crammed into a grassy area next to the local church in Yei. The crowd is here to share their stories of suffering in a region that continues to be plagued by violence, despite the much-vaunted revitalized peace agreement.
One by one they recount their experiences of rampant killings, rape, looting and the destruction of their homes to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, who is visiting the area.
“The women come from the bush, some of them are raped, they come here when they are tired, too sick, when they don’t have proper medication, to be attended to,” says women’s representative Keti Viola George. “Our women here also face the problem of internal people, like the soldiers in the area, who go and steal the little they have in the house. They steal, or they beat them up, some of them kill their children. They really feel a lot of pain.”
The community of displaced people feel particularly aggrieved that, just the day before, an extravagant ceremony was held by political leaders and foreign dignitaries in the capital Juba to celebrate the signing of a new peace deal.
While they are pleased the agreement was secured and there is an overall reduction in fighting around the country, they say peace is not yet a reality in their area where fierce clashes continue.
“People are rejoicing,” says internally displaced person Emmanuel Hakim Wata. “Meanwhile, we are in agony. We are suffering. We are crying. We wish the peace would come to Yei so we can enjoy it like the rest of the world.”
Before fresh fighting flared up in October, the area had experienced a lull in the violence which encouraged thousands of people to return from their hiding places in the bush or from refugee camps in Uganda and the Congo. They hoped to make a fresh start. Instead, they are once again caught in crossfire.
While they feel safe in the town where the United Nations has established a new permanent peacekeeping base, they have little hope of returning to their homes anytime soon.
“The peace celebration was a wonderful day,” says the Head of the UN Mission, David Shearer. “But there are places in the country where the war goes on. In and around Yei, where there are multiple factions fighting each other, the violence is continuing. What we’ve got to be able to do is to try and create a presence and a stability there that will enable people to get back into their own homes.”
The impact of the war as well as bad weather during the rainy season is taking a huge toll. About 20 per cent of all South Sudan’s food supply used to come from this region, but insecurity and heavy rains have destroyed crops and roads, contributing to a grim economic situation.
“We do not want our state to be used as a war theatre by those who are either against the peace agreement or not satisfied with it,” says Yei Deputy Governor, Yousto Beda Dema Lukudu. “Our people have suffered enough. Their plight should end and soon.”
The people of Yei say signing a peace deal is easy. They want concrete action on the ground so that they can finally look forward to a more peaceful and prosperous future.