South Sudan:
Shattered Dreams

South Sudan has been split by a political crisis that has caused widespread violence throughout the country, dividing communities, killing thousands, and causing the displacement of over half a million people.

Find out more with IRIN's exclusive coverage

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"It's a destruction of life"

Part 1: A return to hostilities

On the night of 15 December 2013, shooting broke out between groups within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the national army of the Republic of South Sudan. Accounts of precisely what triggered the violence vary but what is clear is that fighting involving troops loyal to President Salva Kiir Mayardit and those backing sacked vice president Riek Machar spread quickly across the capital, Juba, and the rest of the country. Civilians were targeted because of their ethnic group – Kiir is Dinka; Machar Nuer - and were killed in large numbers.

The auxiliary bishop of Juba, Right Reverend Santo Loku Pio, heard much of the first night’s fighting from the balcony of his home. Over the next few days, some 7,000 people turned up at the compound of Juba Cathedral to seek refuge.

Many more sought the protection of UN peacekeepers in their military base in Juba. One of them, 34-year-old Tol, said he managed to escape a massacre of fellow Nuer by playing dead among their corpses.

Civilian atrocities also took place amid battles for the control of Bor, which lies 160 kilometres north of Juba on the river Nile. Witnesses said forces loyal to Machar committed mass killings, sexual violence and other war crimes. Tens of thousands of civilians fled to the village of Mingakaman, on the other side of the Nile.

By the end of January, almost 650,000 people had been displaced within South Sudan, with a further 123,000 people having fled to neighbouring countries.

A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on 23 January and led to a significant reduction in fighting, although sporadic clashes have since continued in some areas.

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"A power struggle within the ruling party"

Part 2 - How did we get here?

Although widely portrayed as a “tribal conflict” between South Sudan’s largest communities, the Dinka and Nuer, the violence that broke out in mid-December is in fact the culmination of a long-simmering power struggle between different people and groups within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army.

Rivalry between Kiir and Machar dates back many years and it was a gesture towards national unity rather than political amity that led the former to appoint the latter vice president upon South Sudan’s independence in 2011.

Divisions became ever more apparent in 2013. In June, the president watered down Machar’s vice presidential powers; the following month, he sacked him.

On 6 December opposition elements held a joint press conference to denounce Kiir’s leadership.

The fighting broke out nine days later, as the ruling party’s highest decision-making body was meeting in Juba.

These and other divisions within South Sudan were less apparent during the decades of armed struggle against Khartoum for self-determination. Since then, and in particular since independence, the country and the state has had to be constructed virtually from scratch. Many in South Sudan expected more from this process, more from the state in terms of services and representation, than have actually materialized.

The current clashes are not the first bout of violence to break out since the end of the civil war. That numerous atrocities have been committed over the years with impunity, with no justice for victims, no prosecution of perpetrators, has facilitated the latest recourse to arms in the face of political deadlock.

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"We have a lot of work to do"

Part 3 - What next?

The memories of previous armed conflicts are still fresh in the minds of the adult population of South Sudan. This current bout of hostilities has set the country’s development back by ten years, according to UN human rights official Ivan Šimonović. Up to 10,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict's first month. The killing of civilians on both sides has instilled fear and set communities against one another; families have been torn apart. The young nation’s emerging social cohesion has been all but lost. 

In camps for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced, civilians are angry or afraid - often both. Feeling safe enough to return home is a distant prospect. Right Reverand Santos Loku Pio still has 500 displaced people camping in and around his cathedral, many of them women and children. “What is going to happen with these children tomorrow? They are going to grow up with this, and they are going to revenge, which means we have a lot of work to do.” 

Peace processes in South Sudan have consistently promoted stability at the cost of accountability, offering amnesty deals and high-ranking positions to rebel leaders. Today's crisis could present an opportunity to change that. The wheels are already in motion for justice mechanisms that will attempt to bring those responsible to account.

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IRIN Coverage on the South Sudan conflict

Growing disease burden in South Sudan conflict

21 January 2014 (IRIN ), The UN warned this month that acts committed by both sides in the South Sudan crisis could amount to crimes against humanity, and urged parties engaged in peace talks to establish mechanisms to ensure accountability for the violence. Read more »

Doubts over Uganda’s military intervention in South Sudan

17 January 2014 (IRIN ), The Ugandan parliament’s retroactive authorization of a military intervention in neighbouring South Sudan has elicited considerable criticism from activists and analysts. Read more »

Briefing: What analysts are saying about South Sudan's crisis

16 January 2014 (IRIN ), Since violence first broke out on 15 December, the conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Representatives of President Salva Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, are meeting in Addis Ababa to attempt to negotiate a settlement and a cease-fire. Meanwhile, think tanks, academics and experts have been scrambling to explain the causes of the bitter acrimony and bloodshed that has engulfed the country. Read more »

Refugee arrivals in Uganda raise humanitarian, security concerns

15 January 2014 (IRIN ), Weeks of conflict in South Sudan have left thousands of people dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. Thousands of the displaced have been arriving in northern Uganda, where their situation is dire and has elicited security concerns. Read more »

Briefing: The humanitarian cost of South Sudan’s continuing violence

31 December 2013 (IRIN ), As the conflict in South Sudan continues, aid agencies are struggling to provide assistance to the thousands of people caught up in the violence. As of 29 December, an estimated 180,000 people had been driven from their homes by the fighting, 75,000 of whom are seeking shelter in UN compounds. Read more »

More IRIN reporting »

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