In South Sudan, Peace Sought In Bringing Two Leaders Together

While on a one-day visit to South Sudan's capital, Secretary of State John Kerry said the country's recent conflict could devolve into genocide. He and regional leaders voiced support for a U.N.-sanctioned force to keep civilians safe.

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Thousands have been killed in South Sudan since a political dispute devolved into targeted ethnic massacres. Secretary of State John Kerry visited South Sudan today. His trip is aimed at bringing the warring parties face to face to end the conflict. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, the U.S. has special interest in the country because the United States is behind its political existence.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Arriving in the capital Juba, John Kerry took a moment to recall his last trip to South Sudan on July 9, 2011, the day it became a country. He remembered talking with a man who was waiting in a long line under the hot sun to cast his vote for independence from the northern neighbor Sudan.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: And that person to me said, don't worry -- I was then a senator -- don't worry, Senator, I've waited 50 years for this moment. I'm not going anywhere until I've voted.

WARNER: But now three years later South Sudan's president Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar are engaged in a ruthless struggle for power over the oil-rich country. Forces fighting for each side have recruited child soldiers, committed mass rapes and tortures and killings to terrorize the ethnic base of their rivals.

KERRY: If both sides do not take steps in order to reduce or end the violence, they will completely destroy what they are fighting to inherit.

WARNER: And then Kerry used a phrase he's been testing out a lot on this Africa trip. He said both sides needed to have discussions...

KERRY: About a transition government that can bring peace to the country.

WARNER: And this was Kerry's mission on this day trip. He pressed both presidents Salva Kiir in person and rebel leader Riek Machar on the phone to get them to agree to discuss a transition government. In other words, he's trying to get two men fighting for power to discuss steps to a government where neither would likely hold the reins.

And to understand why this is so tricky, I drove to downtown Juba to visit Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, the former South Sudanese ambassador to the United States.

His living room is streaming with well-wishers. Gatkuoth was released from prison last week. He'd been thrown in jail in December by President Kiir for allegedly siding with Riek Machar in a supposed coup. But despite his four-month imprisonment, Gatkuoth was optimistic that Kiir could still end the war with a phone call.

EZEKIEL LOL GATKUOTH: Sure, why not? He should call Riek on the phone: My brother, this is very unfortunate; we need to end this war.

WARNER: And that would end the war?

GATKUOTH: This would end the war if these two leaders agree.

WARNER: And this is the paradox of South Sudanese politics. To much of the outside world, both Machar and Kiir have lost their legitimate claim to long-term power because of the violence. But inside South Sudan, they're still in charge and no peace is possible without them.

GATKUOTH: Because these are the leaders.

WARNER: Secretary Kerry has proposed measures to force both leaders to talk. He's pushing the U.N. Security Council to authorize 2500 peacekeepers from neighboring African countries to physically separate the two sides. And he's also threatened economic sanctions and suggested that if the violence continues both men could be indicted for war crimes.

And the former ambassador, Gatkuoth, feels that this pressure will make a difference.

GATKUOTH: You know, the U.S. brought this country to be an independent country. They're investing billions of dollars in different areas. They're ones who built this road that is linking us to Uganda. There is no other road that is linking us to any country in the world, except this road which was built by the US. They can impose a solution. We cannot continue to die like this. They have to impose a solution, even if it means force.

WARNER: And another deadline is approaching: Its planting season in South Sudan. And the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator has warned that people are too scared to go into their farms to till their fields. And if they're not coaxed back in the next few weeks to put those seeds in the ground, South Sudan could face years of famine.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.

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