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South Sudan’s Fragile Peace Is Breaking Down on Multiple Fronts

Sudan has accused its neighbor of attacking its citizens in the disputed Abyei region, but South Sudan also faces a civil war.

by Alice Speri
Mar 4 2014, 10:55pm

Photo by Phil Caller

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is facing a civil war at home and ongoing conflict on its disputed border with Sudan, from which it declared independence less than three years ago.

Khartoum’s government has accused its southern neighbor of attacking its citizens in the disputed area of Abyei, on the border between the countries. Clashes between warring tribes flared up there during the weekend killing at least 10 people, Sudanese officials said.

The fate of the oil-rich territory remains unresolved since a 2011 attempt by its ethnic Nuban population to break away from Sudan. Abyei is one of several lingering consequences of the peace agreements leading to South Sudan’s secession.

Sudanese officials have consistently accused their South Sudanese counterparts of interfering in the region and supporting the rebellion of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North there (SPLM-N), which are charges vehemently denied by Juba.

"What is going on in Abyei area has nothing to do with governments,” South Sudan's ambassador to Khartoum, Mayan Dut Waal, said at a press conference. “These are skirmishes between Dinka and Misseriya civilians.”

The disputed territory is under the control of UNISFA, the Ethiopian-led UN peacekeeping mission on the ground since 2011.

In a report released last week, the UN interim security force accused both governments of widespread violations of the peace agreements — including an increased presence of South Sudanese troops and North Sudanese oil workers.

South Kordofan’s oil fields account for the bulk of Sudan's 135,000 barrels-a-day production, the Wall Street Journal reported — a clear indication of why Khartoum has rejected referendums on the region’s fate.

Talks between Sudan's government and the SPLM-N rebels also collapsed during the weekend, hampering hopes for a truce in the rich border region.

Meanwhile, south of the volatile border, South Sudan has got problems of its own.

An agreement made by warring factions there is not holding up, prompting a bloc of East African states to consider sending troops in to help enforce a ceasefire, Reuters reported.

Government troops and rebels agreed to a truce on January 23, but fighting has since broken out again.

Those clashes, which have escalated in recent weeks, followed a power struggle, last December, between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar, and translated into a conflict that pitted the two men’s ethnic communities — the Dinka and the Nuer — against each other.

“South Sudan only gained independence from the North in 2011, but now the world’s youngest country has already slipped into civil war,” VICE News’ Aris Roussinos said in a five-part documentary series about the conflict.

“No outside observers know for sure how the war began,” Roussinos said. “What is known is that thousands of people have been killed, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their homes, and that both sides have committed major human rights abuses.”

Watch VICE News’ latest documentary “Ambushed in South Sudan” and follow VICE News correspondents as they embed with South Sudan's army in its attempt to recapture the strategic city of Bor from the rebels.

From Juba, where it started, fighting spread further north as rebels and government troops alternated in taking over the towns of Malakal and Bentiu, two key oil hubs.

In a detailed report published last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused both pro and anti-government armed forces there of abuses “that may amount to war crimes.” HRW blamed both sides of the conflict for extended looting, attacks on aid facilities, and extrajudicial executions based on ethnicity.

The report claimed that opposition forces killed civilians at Malakal hospital and that the violence even caused casualties near and inside UN camps in the area. It also charged that areas in the towns of Bentiu and Rubkona were burned by government troops when recapturing them from rebels.

Though most civilians fled ahead of the arrival of the government forces, soldiers shot and killed civilians who remained, residents told the rights group.

The escalating violence has displaced thousands of people.

“Malakal is a ghost town, much of it is totally destroyed now,” HRW’s Jehanne Henry said in a video released by the group. “The vast majority of Malakal’s population have fled.”

Human Rights Watch documented the impact of the violence on residents of Malakal and Bentiu.

Civilians took to the country’s rural areas and UN camps. The agency’s mission to South Sudan — UNMISS — has sheltered more than 27,000 in Malakal and more than 7,000 in Bentiu, but like other organizations on the ground, it is struggling to provide for the necessities of those displaced by the violence.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a video calling for an immediate end to the violence in the region. It reported targeted killings, sexual violence, and attacks against medical facilities and health workers.

“We’re calling on all parties to the conflict to respect humanitarian law,” ICRC head of delegation Melker Mabeck said then.

Continued fighting in South Sudan — as well as in Sudan and on the border with South Sudan — has complicated the “cross-border humanitarian situation,” UN officials said.

Refugees from both countries have been trading places, while thousands are internally displaced.

According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there were nearly 25,000 refugees from South Sudan in Sudan last month, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported more than 210,000 refugees from Sudan in South Sudan.

Further complicating an already complex demographic situation and fragile ethnic balance, another 2,500 to 3,000 refugees have recently arrived in the disputed territory of Abyei from South Sudan — fleeing one ethnic conflict straight into another one.