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South Sudan’s War Just Turned Two — And the UN Says Its Peacekeepers Aren’t Leaving

Two years to the day after war broke out in South Sudan, the UN Security Council voted to extend the peacekeeping mission in the country through next summer.
December 15, 2015, 10:44pm
Imagen vía Yonhap/EPA

Two years to the day after war broke out in South Sudan, the United Nations Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN's peacekeeping mission in the country through next summer.

The US-drafted resolution was approved by a vote of 13-0 on Tuesday. Both Russia and Venezuela abstained over objections to language on sanctions and the use of drones to carry out reconnaissance in the country, where fighting between rebels and government-backed forces still continues.

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South Sudan was less than three years old when clashes first broke out between rival factions of the presidential guard in the capital, Juba, on December 15, 2013. President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, his former vice president, of plotting a coup — a claim Machar denied. The skirmish soon led to revenge killings in the city, and, within days, a wider civil war.

Throughout the conflict, ethnicity has often — but not always — played a role in what human rights groups and the UN consider gross violations of human rights. Kiir is of Dinka heritage, Machar is a Nuer, and their forces have regularly been comprised of soldiers from those communities. The UN and African Union have described a number of atrocities in South Sudan, including mass rape, castration, forced cannibalism, and civilians being burned alive.

Related: Victims of South Sudan's War Were Raped, Burned, Made to Drink Blood and Eat Flesh

In August, under threat of mounting sanctions and international outcry over what was seen as both men's stubbornness in the face of a conflict that has claimed more than 50,000 lives, Kiir and Machar inked a peace deal meant to end the war. While it hasn't been flouted to the degree that previous, lesser accords were, both sides have continued to engage in small battles, as have tinier militias and armed groups.

As was feared prior to the signing of the peace deal, some members who fought nominally under Machar have split off from the rebel leader, and others have pressured him not to follow up on the stipulations of the agreement that could lead to the creation of a cohesive and inclusive central government. Achieving accountability for war crimes has also been a sticking point.

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Casie Copeland, a South Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that while opposition forces held less territory than they did a year ago, their forces still command large portions of several strategically important states, including the southern and eastern sections of oil-rich Unity state and eastern Upper Nile state. The government, she added, may still think it can strike a fatal blow to Machar's forces. Renewed fighting has in past years coincided with the country's dry season, which is now approaching.

"We're actually in a different war than [we were] for the last two years," Copeland said, explaining that fighting has escalated in some areas where it had previously been less intense, notably in the south. There, she counted armed groups from more than two dozen different ethnic groups — some associated with the opposition, some not — that had begun agitating against the government.

"Significant amounts of that are local issues related to land — it's very much beyond the Dinka-Nuer dichotomy that people often view this through," said Copeland.

Watch the VICE News documentary Ambushed in South Sudan:

Despite the peace agreement, some 180,000 South Sudanese are still seeking refuge at UN bases in the country. Locals and aid workers in the country say the number of displaced people in the camps is one of the best indicators of whether a country-wide peace is real.

After independence in 2011, billions of dollars in aid money flowed into the country, but much of that was pilfered away by well-connected elites that almost entirely hailed from the rebel forces that had fought Sudan for decades. After two and a half years, bickering turned into open bloodshed.

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Today, the central government is strapped for cash, having seen its oil income dwindle over the course of the war. What money it did have was largely spent on weapons, and, as the war progressed, large investors stepped away from bailing out Juba with loans. On Tuesday, the central bank allowed its currency to float freely — rather than attempt to prop it up at official rates — and it plummeted 84 percent in value. Record low oil prices have only made matters worse.

Related: The Battle for Cattle: Civilians Starve as Soldiers Loot Livestock in South Sudan

Meanwhile, according to the aid group Oxfam, 2.4 million people in South Sudan are considered "severely hungry," including 30,000 individuals in Unity state who are at risk of famine due to continued fighting in the area.

In a statement on Tuesday, Oxfam called for South Sudan's leaders to implement the measures outlined in the August accord. "If peace delays further or the deal breaks down completely, there will be no end to the misery for millions," said Zlatko Gegic, country director in South Sudan at Oxfam.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford