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Lessons from South Sudan

As we see the world’s newest country slowly become torn apart, we can only reflect on how this happened and how it can be prevented in other areas. South Sudan became the world’s newest country in July 2011. As country No. 193, there were great hopes when the leader of Sudan (considered a war criminal by many) came to the flag-raising of South Sudan. After years of war and millions of people killed, there was a celebration of peace.

Now, factions within South Sudan are killing each other, and there are charges of ethnic cleansing. It is no longer a war between Arabs in the North and Christians in the South but tribe members who are Christian against other tribe members who are also Christian. Just this weekend, there were charges that a group from the Dinka tribe used a tank to dig up a grave of a Neur general and desecrate his body. What could possibly make people do something so horrific?

We hear about house-to-house hunts to kill people of different tribes, taking retribution for previous massacres and battles. The unfortunate legacy of this war is documented in Stephanie Beswick’s “Sudan’s Blood Memory, The Legacy of War, Ethnicity and Slavery in South Sudan” (University of Rochester Press, 2004). After the slicing up of Africa by colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, the lines of displaced anger were drawn. In order to survive, ethnic groups gave homage and support to the aggressors and took it out on each other. With the power being held by the foreign colonial powers, it became easier to fight each other rather than the ones with the superior guns and weapons.

What happened then when South Sudan became a country made up of generals and fighters who became the leaders? These generals had been responsible for overseeing some of the most horrific fighting imaginable. War is always terrible, but war mixed in with tribal retributions is unimaginable.

What then can we learn about how to prevent what we are seeing in South Sudan? I do not pretend to have the hard and fast answers, but as someone who has spent the last six years traveling and working there, I have some thoughts.

Religion is not necessarily unifying, and religion without modern peace education doesn’t translate into people getting along. We saw that exemplified in Northern Ireland and most of us in the United States had no idea why Protestants and Catholics were fighting and killing each other. South Sudan had lots of missionaries in the last century, and although the people became Christian, the ethnic hostilities, often left from the legacy of colonialism and resource grabs, still persist.

We saw violence and destruction of human life in our own country during the civil rights movement, albeit not in the numbers and form that we have seen in the last month in South Sudan. But it took dedication of many to make the South a place where lynching and racial violence were a thing of the past. It took schools and churches to make sure that violence due to someone’s race came to an end. Many denominations worked on teaching skills to help young children as well as adults learn to get along and resolve differences. Peace education not only aims to teach the value of cooperation but also conflict resolution.

Unfortunately, when South Sudan became an independent country, the legacy of past rivalries and side taking with the North during the two wars (1956-1973 and 1984-2005) were never addressed. In its zeal to become a country, past conflicts were overlooked, and a “let’s all get along” type of policy was taken. Nuer soldiers were put in units with Dinka soldiers, but there was no attempt to help them understand that past history needed to be addressed and that the past history could effect present behavior.

When fighting broke out between the factions lead by President Kirr and former Vice President Machar, there was nothing to stop old, smoldering hostilities from taking place. Like in families where conflicts repeat themselves from generation to generation, these unresolved differences were still there. Military units fought within themselves. This does not happen in the U.S military service, but there are years of military discipline and education designed to prevent these kinds of problems.

Now, because there has been so much fighting between Nuer and Dinka people in this brand new country, there needs to be more than talks at a table in neighboring Ethiopia. Religious organizations in the West (both in Europe and in North America) must insist that peace training coincide with religious worship. It is only by giving people the tools to get along that South Sudan can be one country in peace and once and for all end the smoldering tribal wars that became such efficient killing machines. These conflicts served the needs of men who wanted to control parts of South Sudan for reasons other than the needs of its people. Everyone who has a role in South Sudan must play a part in solving this on a person-to-person level as well as with high-level talks. It is the only way lasting peace will be achieved.

Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact [email protected].