UNITY STATE- A high-level delegation recently visited communities affected by devastating violence in the southern part of Unity State.
Its members, including representatives of the African Union (AU), the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC), the African Diplomatic Corps (ADC), the European Union (EU), the Troika (Norway, USA and the UK) and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) were not spared the gruesome details of what has transpired here since February.
“You see me with these crutches,” Tapitha Nyekat Lony, a survivor seeking refuge in Leer town told the delegation. “I was not using them before, but the injuries I sustained during the clashes in my village have reduced me to this,” she said.
“Are you here to rescue us? Then let me tell you something. I have two children who managed to survive the attacks. if you have come to save us, then let my children survive,” she added before she and other cruelly affected people broke down in tears.
The clashes in Unity State started in February 2022 and have undermined the results of efforts to enhance social cohesion in the area since the formation of a Transitional Government of National Unity. The widespread violence has left many residents wondering whether the revitalized peace agreement is actually still being implemented.
A look at the bleak figures explains such bewilderment. Between February and April, Human Rights Officers serving with the peacekeeping mission have documented 155 people killed, 138 incidents of sexual violence, and 26 women and children being abducted in the three affected counties of Leer, Mayendit and Koch.
An estimated 40,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. Schools have been burnt, civilian property destroyed, and health facilities and humanitarian warehouses looted. The mayhem has dramatically increased humanitarian needs and placed thousands of already vulnerable people at further risk. In April, a humanitarian worker was killed in Leer while trying to flee an attack on his community.
The high-level joint delegation went to southern Unity to express solidarity with the affected communities and to reiterate its support to the people and government of South Sudan in pushing the peace process forward.
Listening to the experiences endured by survivors in Leer, Rubkuay and Mirmir will have served as a brutal reminder that much work remains to be done.
“When the first fighting broke out, four women were killed. Three others died during the second wave of clashes,” Nyachak Gatwich, a women’s leader from Mirmir said. “When we were hit by a third outburst of violence, we lost another eight women. Those were just the ones we saw, but there were many more victims.”
The heinous acts of violence were perpetrated by armed youths from the communities who violated women and young girls, looted property and destroyed what could not be taken away.
Survivors appreciated the visit of the dignitaries from faraway as it proved an opportunity to vent their despair, desolation and frustration.
Shock and disbelief could be added to the volatile mix of emotions expressed by Nyalok Dry Chuol, another female survivor in Leer town.
“What have we done to deserve this? Is it normal for a group of young men to gang-rape their mothers and sisters and leave them bleeding to death? Are you, the international community, seeing these atrocities? We need your protection,” she cried out.
Wherever they went, members of the visiting party were met with more of the same pent-up indignation and desperate pleas for assistance.
“We have been looking forward to this encounter ever since we heard of your coming here,” said James Gatjiek Thot, an internally displaced survivor of the clashes. “If you have come to save us, then give us a protection of civilians site where we can be safe,” he added.
While spending most of its limited time on the ground listening, the delegation also took the opportunity to assure them that the security and humanitarian situation will be dealt with in any ways possible.
“Your messages are loud and clear, and we want to thank you for these frank interactions,” said Guang Cong, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in charge of the peacekeeping mission’s political affairs. “The high-level composition of this delegation is an indication of the grave concern of the international community about what has happened in Unity State,” he declared.
Ambassador Joram Mukama Biswaro, Head of the African Union Mission in South Sudan, pointed out that peace and stability can only be truly achieved by the South Sudanese people themselves, with the international community in a supporting role.
“Whether you are on the government’s side or in opposition, you are all South Sudanese. Youths, it does not matter what community you belong to, because you are the leaders of tomorrow, and tomorrow starts today. You have the potential to be the game-changers, don’t let yourselves be manipulated by politicians,” he implored.
At a time when the Women, Peace and Security agenda has become a vital component of peace building, Ambassador Biswaro also had a message for women in general and mothers in particular.
“Counsel your children, your brothers, and your husbands. You are the mothers of this nation, and you can lead your people to the promised land of peace. I know that you can do that,” he said, being cheered on by the women in attendance.
Members of the delegation pledged to do everything in their power to hold those responsible for the atrocities committed accountable for their deeds.
“We are calling for action from the government to identify the perpetrators. We are calling for justice to be done,” Guang Cong said.
First, however, the violence must come to an end. After a few weeks of relative calm, a cattle raid on 16 May, reportedly leading to the killing of eighteen people, indicates that a solution leading to peaceful coexistence in the conflict-ridden area remains elusive.