The people of South Sudan are being urged to “rise up and be the drivers of peace” in communities across the country as nine governors came together for an historic peace conference in Yambio.
The local governors, along with state government representatives, religious and community leaders, gathered in Yambio, in the western Equatorias, for the first ever such peace conference, under the theme “peace within and across borders”.
The conference was designed to kick-start a local reconciliation and peace process that is hoped could be replicated across the country as South Sudan continues to confront ongoing violence four years after civil war erupted in 2013.
“Enough is enough. The time has come to end war, to have forgiveness, to have peace, to revitalize ourselves as South Sudanese people to move our country forward,” said Gbudwe Governor Daniel Badagbu Rimbasa.
“We are not here to point fingers but to forgive. We must be the drivers of peace. The people of South Sudan must rise up so that peace can be owned by everyone in the country.”
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, spoke at the conference about the three key ingredients to peace - reconciliation, the maintenance of security and stability, and the building of resilience and ultimately development.
“Reconciliation has to come from within, it cannot be imposed from outside the country,” he said. While it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to maintain security, the United Nations is here to stand beside you and help maintain that stability.”
The Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan also announced the doubling of peacekeeping troops in Yambio to 300 to increase patrols along insecure roads and provide a protective presence in communities so that people feel safe to return to their homes.
Yambio is a lush and fertile region in the southwest of the country, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was once a bustling trading post but hundreds of thousands of people fled the area during the violence. They have begun to return as the region experiences a lull in the fighting with crops are being cultivated again and markets now bustling with activity.
David Shearer said this relatively stable situation provided an important opportunity to build durable peace.
“There is a real chance to help people build resilience and livelihoods so they can support themselves and their families. It is an opportunity to see something beyond guns and war - a chance for people to develop, move forward and to feel they are receiving a dividend from peace.”
Religious leaders urged politicians to use the conference as a launching pad for peace across the region.
His words were echoed by Catholic Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala.
“This conference is not to dwell on the past. The past does not define us. It is what happens today and going forward that will make us proud of who we are as a nation,” he said. “We are not coming here to count the wounds or to count our problems. We are here to ensure that tomorrow is brighter for the people of South Sudan.”
The dire economic situation and lack of infrastructure, including roads and hospitals, are holding back the progress of peace and development in the area.
A new paediatric wing at the Yambio Hospital has also just been opened by UNICEF and other humanitarian partners.
UNMISS engineering contingents have also committed to carrying out road repairs on major supply routes which will enable safe travel for local motorists and traders. This will also support the peace process by enabling continued contact between participants representing different communities and tribes.
That comes as the local governor urges communities to put tribalism behind them and come together as a united people.
“The time has come where we are South Sudanese people, not tribal people,” said Governor Daniel Badagbu. “Our time has come. This is the time for us to embrace peace, to embrace reconciliation, to embrace development. Let us change from war to embrace peace. Guns cannot solve our problems. The only real weapon is dialogue.”
The vice chair of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, Ambassador Lt. Gen. Augostino SK Ngoroge, urged conference participants to promote tolerance and reconciliation to “build a bridge across your state boundaries towards peace and social harmony as well as economic development for all South Sudanese people”.
“We must do better and correct the mistakes of the past so that we have peace, justice and reconciliation,” he said. “We must all work together to achieve the goal of sustainable peace in South Sudan.”
David Shearer said that the perception of South Sudan outside the country was largely negative. But the conference in Yambio represented an opportunity to change that impression.
“I want to be able to go and talk to the (United Nations) Security Council and to the international community about this conference. I want to say there are opportunities here. There are people in South Sudan who want to take those opportunities for peace and prosperity and we should support them,” he said.