Fighting, Fears Escalate In South Sudan

The United Nations' chief is calling for additional peacekeepers for South Sudan where fighting between forces loyal to the president and those loyal to his former deputy is spiraling.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, to the world's youngest nation, South Sudan. The spread of violence there has sparked fears of a full blown civil war. Hundreds of people have died as forces loyal to the president battle rebels loyal to his former deputy. The clashes are escalating along tribal lines. Human rights groups say troops and civilians are carrying out targeted killings. The UN chief has called for more peacekeepers.

The United States is repositioning marines and military aircraft in case they're needed to help with the further evacuations. NPR's Gregory Warner is in the South Sudan capital, Juba, and Gregory, the fighting erupted in Juba a little more than a week ago. What is the situation like there now?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: You know, Robert, it's strange to describe 'cause it's very quiet. There's a veneer of normalcy to the (unintelligible) who are driving and the motorcycle taxis. At the same time, though, there's a lot of fear. You talk to people, people are very scared of a return to the days of civil war here. There are long lines outside the UN, people trying to get in, but the UN compounds are full of internal refugees.

So people would rather sleep outside the UN compound than sleep in their homes. That's just the situation here in the capital. It's far worse in Jonglei state, which is in the east, right on the border of Ethiopia. That's, for the past two years, has been the site of repeated ethic conflict. There, you know, the rebel army is really in control of the area and we hear terrible stories about the civilians being shot in the streets.

SIEGEL: Well, Greg, tell us about the two men behind the fighting, President Salva Kiir and his former Deputy Riek Machar.

WARNER: Well, they're, you know, personality opposites. It's interesting. So, Kiir - President Kiir is kind of a rough, gruff, silent type. He wears a cowboy hat, very distinctive. And he's an uneducated guy, really rose up from the bush. Riek Machar, his vice president, is smooth talking, very popular with journalists, British educated - tweed suits. These guys don't talk to each other. They really hate each other. And, you know, there's completed different accounts on each side of that - how this even started, what set this off to even whether or not there was a coup.

You know, one side will say: Yeah, Riek Machar started a coup and now he wants to take over the democracy. The other will say: No, no, no. This democratically-elected president has been guilty of all kinds of things, spawning corruption and human rights abuses in (unintelligible), and he didn't want to take the criticism so he made up this coup.

Both sides say, you know, they are trying to preserve democracy. It might be this very tension, this very war between these two men that destroys the world's newest democracy.

SIEGEL: Greg, I gather that the fighting is breaking down along tribal lines; the president being from the largest tribe, the Dinka, and the rebel commander from the second-largest, the Nuer. Are there fears that this could turn into a Dinka-Nuer fight?

WARNER: Absolutely, that is the biggest fear. And when you add in a lot of guns, an undisciplined military, child soldiers, long-standing ethnic tensions, you could have a terribly deadly civil war. But right now, we should say it's still a political conflict and there are signs today that it might have a political solution. Both sides have said they're willing to talk. We just heard from U.S. envoy Donald Booth. He spoke to press shortly ago. And he said he had Frank and open discussion with President Salva Kiir, the President Kiir is ready to begin talks with Riek Machar - unconditional talks.

We should say though that even as these two sides are talking about talking, there's also a military battle going on. There are rebel-held areas. There are threats that there'll be more rebel-held areas. And so, it's challenging because you can't talk about diplomacy and also be trying to kill each other at the same time.

SIEGEL: South Sudan won independence in 2011 from Sudan. That was something that the U.S. wanted badly. Today, what's the U.S. interest in this conflict?

WARNER: Look, one of the biggest diplomatic achievements on the continent for the United States, was the U.S.-backed peace deal between Sudan and South Sudan, that is in jeopardy and that's one the U.S. interests. Of course, there's more than that. Your security, look at the neighbors: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem in South Sudan could have a hugely destabilizing effect.

But then there's also oil. Oil has been at the heart of all the conflicts between South Sudan and Sudan and particularly. Right now, there are rumors that some of the forces loyal Riek Machar, the former vice president, had taken over oil fields - President Kiir denies that. But any talk about taking over oil fields might wake up northern neighbors, Sudan, and get them involved. Then you have this crisis spilling over borders.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Gregory Warner in Cuba, the capital of South Sudan. Gregory, thank you.

WARNER: Thanks, Robert.

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SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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