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Small steps towards peace in Jonglei state

20 August 2009

Chris Chapman, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention, is in South Sudan running a conflict resolution workshop with communities from the region.

It took us 7 hours to drive the 100 miles from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to Bor in Jonglei state. With Paul from our partner organisation, Pibor Development Access, I am due to run a workshop on resolving conflicts between different ethnic minorities over land and other natural resources.

The subject could not be more topical; during the previous week, the Murle and Lou Nuer ethnic groups had clashed, with a death toll of 185, mostly women and children. Earlier this year, 700 Murle were killed by Lou Nuer. The clashes centre around access to the toc, an area of marshland between Akobo, a Lou Nuer town, and Lekwangole, where the residents are Murle. The toc belongs to the Murle but, as Paul explains, the two communities share access; in the dry season it is needed by both communities for grazing their cattle. When drought strikes, one community will write to the other and ask for a meeting to come to a new agreement. However problems are caused by spoilers; young men with guns who do not respect the agreements and raid the other community’s cattle.

The workshop participants are mainly young civil society activists. Their attitude is a mix of enthusiasm, good humour and resigned fatalism. I am still trying to get to grips with the complexity of the conflicts these people are trying to deal with and the appalling logistical problems they face; the participants from Boma, in the East of Jonglei, have taken two days to get here, and had to come via Juba. However, and most importantly, the community organisations lack resources.

During the workshop our trainer, an experienced Kenyan who seems to speak most of the local languages of South Sudan, plus a couple of Ugandan ones, runs a mock mediation session. I am surprised that they choose the recent conflict over the toc; both Lou Nuer and Murle are represented. But it goes without incident; they even mix up the two communities, having them play at being in the opposing camp. They enjoy acting out mutual accusations; ‘I was abducted by you when I was 9 and grew up with you; that is my “father” sitting over there’, says one (he gets a laugh for his creativity). They reach a mock agreement to bring the fighting to an end, return abducted children, punish those responsible, and set up a committee to ensure the agreement is respected.

On day two, news comes in of further clashes between ethnic groups in Twic East, a county in the North of Jonglei. This was Paul’s fear – if clashes happened during the workshop participants would go home to try to deal with it; but luckily this time it did not involve the communities we had brought together.

The trip back to Juba takes an extra hour, because it has rained heavily in the meantime. The road alternates between dry compacted mud and rutted sludge, with the occasional military style metal bridge. At one point we drive at a crawl through what must have been 1000 head of cattle; beautiful white cows with long, curved horns typical of South Sudan. The bulls, or mabior, are revered and are ritually slaughtered to mark important peace agreements. My companions tell me the cattle probably belong to about 10 Dinka families. A number of men with AK 47s are guarding them; the Dinka around Bor are often at war with the neighbouring Mundari, and cattle rustling is a continual problem.

With land being such a focus for conflict in South Sudan, I am trying to understand how we can be passing through mile after mile of green, fertile land, seemingly unused. Surely there is enough to go around? The cattle rearing communities that dominate here are uninterested in farming, but it is clear that some of this overgrown jungle is not being used for grazing either. Paul assures me that it is not unclaimed land; it all belongs to communities. If another community moves in, conflict will quickly ensue. At one point we passed through an area of flat, fertile land, ideal for grazing; but my companions explained that it is a kind of no man’s land on the border between the Dinka and Mundari; neither dare venture into it.

Back in Juba, I smiled a little as I bought my mobile top up from a six foot by six foot corrugated iron shack advertising itself as Office Automation Technologies; photocopies were among other services offered. But I also had to stop to admire the optimism. After 30 years of civil war, the owner, like our Jonglei peacebuilders, was trying to build a better future through sheer force of will.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.