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It’s been only a year and a half since mostly Christian South Sudan split from Muslim Sudan in a referendum that was accompanied by widespread violence, but now tribal rivalries have plunged the new country into its own civil war.
Reports coming from the war-torn country vary with one report Tuesday claiming the government and rebels are discussing an end to the fighting that has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people.
The South Sudan government’s Twitter account is silent on the rebels entering the peace talks.
But it is reporting that President Salva Kiir and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir have agreed to consider establishing a joint force to defend the area’s lucrative oil fields.
Salva Kiir tweeted Tuesday that he is committed to peace.
“We are ready to turn every stone to achieve peace,” he wrote. “We’ve gone to Addis Ababa for peace and we will return to people of South Sudan with peace.”
In a conflicting report, rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar said the rebels are close to capturing the capital city of Juba.
“Today our forces crushed the amassed government soldiers at their stronghold in Jameza on Juba road. Our troops broke their stronghold and are pursuing them as they flee back to Juba. Juba will fall soon,” Machar said.
Machar’s claim is contradicted by the South Sudan Ministry of Defense, which says it has broken the rebel hold on the northern oil region city of Bor.
Recent reports said Machar’s forces refused an offer to join the Addis Ababa peace talks and were refusing to disarm.
United Nations human rights groups estimate thousands already have been killed and there are at least 200,000 refugees. One source reported the number of refugees could swell to 400,000 in the next two weeks.
In an official statement, the South Sudan government tweeted: “We are participating in talks because we want peace for our people even though the rebel groups have not accepted a cessation of hostilities.”
Other tweets from the past week indicate South Sudan’s SPLA is still fighting and Kiir has “declared a state of emergency for Unity and Junglei states.”
Global Response Network president and founder Tom Zurowski said the fighting in South Sudan appears to be an attempted power grab by Machar.
“As of right now, there is no evidence that any solid commanders (who faithfully fought for South Sudan’s independence) have sided with Machar. His forces truly appear to be a rebel militia,” Zurowski said.
Refugees from the violence-ridden region have moved to a camp along the South Sudan-Sudan border.
BBC News reports families are living under trees as the fighting worsens, and most of the victims are from the largest South Sudan tribe, the Dinka.
Independent Sudan news site Nuba Reports says many of the 70,000 refugees from Unity State are considering returning home to Sudan, where al-Bashir is still waging a war against the Christians.
Returning home could be difficult. WND reported in September 2012 that the human rights group Barnabas Aid began airlifting persecuted Christians and other refugees from Khartoum to South Sudan.
Barnabas Aid USA Director Julian Dobbs said the project was necessary to save the lives of South Sudanese Christians who found themselves in the line of fire.
“Christians have been impoverished and are extremely vulnerable. President Omar al-Bashir has made it clear that Christians are not welcome in Sudan. Frankly, he’s repeatedly declared his intention to make the constitution of Sudan 100 percent Islamic,” Dobbs said.
“It makes Christians who are living in these regions in the north very vulnerable. Thus we’re having engagement with our partners in the Africa Inland Church,” Dobbs said.
Zurowski said the “trouble will come when and if the ex-vice president can rally other small, yet lethal factions, which have already distanced themselves from the SPLA and are on the move.”
Zurowski believes a key player in the violence is the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by the notorious Joseph Kony.
“There is already one group that has been guilty of village raids the likes of Joseph Kony’s LRA. Children, even small babies, have been stolen. Women have been raped, and livestock have been taken by these rebels. Two babies were stolen in the village where we work, and villagers now live in fear,” Zurowski said.
He believes Machar isn’t interested in South Sudan progressing peacefully.
“One thing should speak for itself as it pertains to former Vice President Riek Machar: He is the unreasonable party when it comes to peace, stability and negotiations. If he really believed in working toward a peaceful solution, he and his supporters would work toward having him elected in South Sudan’s next free and open election,” Zurowski said.
“Machar does not seem to be interested in doing things for the betterment of the whole of South Sudan; it appears that the betterment of Riek Machar is what is fueling the current conflict, but time will tell,” Zurowski said.
An intelligence analyst who asked not to be identified agreed, but he went further. He thinks the situation could become more severe because it is motivated by decades-old tribal rivalries.
“I’m guessing the chances are about 50-50 that they’ll be in full-scale civil war,” he said. “There’s already Nuer-on-Dinka violence, and obviously so, and it’s being gladly reciprocated.”
Despite reports of an agreement to protect the oil fields between Kiir and al-Bashir, tribal violence isn’t the only danger for the refugees.
WND reported in July 2012 that the two nations were instruments in a larger conflict. Analyst Joseph Puder said the border region between the two countries is, in fact, a proxy war between Israel and Iran.
“Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, eager to win over the Sunni-Arab world, has been more than happy to comply and provide Khartoum with arms, ideology and strengthened economic ties, including oil exploration,” Puder wrote when Ahmadinejad had been in office.
“For Tehran, Bashir’s Sudan is a major Shiite Islam success story,” Puder wrote. “Sudan is both an Arab and Sunni-Muslim [nation] previously allied with the West (under President Jafaar Numeiri). Omar Bashir transformed Sudan into an Islamic theocracy allied with Iran and turned it into a base of operations for Tehran in Africa and the Middle East (supplying arms to Hamas in Gaza through Sudan).”
The region comprising South Sudan was predominantly Christian before its official separation from Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan. South Sudan fought a long war to win separation from Khartoum, but as a result of its Christian population, Sudanese soldiers regularly went to the south and kidnapped people and took them into slavery.
WND reported in October 2011 that the number of Muslim-motivated kidnappings of Christians was in the thousands. WND columnist Ellen Ratner volunteers with Christian Solidarity International, and she said the Christian victims were viewed as spoils of war.
“The south being Christian, part of the ‘war booty’ that was taken were the Christians and they were made slaves, house slaves, cattle slaves, and often [Muslims would] try to convert them to Islam, give them Islamic names and make the women ‘clean’ by genital mutilation,” Ratner said.
“They often call them infidel, kafir, or other names which were obviously very degrading, like dogs, and Muslims don’t like dogs,” Ratner said.
Since Britain granted Sudan independence 50 years ago, an estimated four million people have been killed in civil wars. The most recent ended in 2005 with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement that set up the January 2011 referendum on the creation of a separate nation.