How South Sudan Came To The Brink Of Civil War

South Sudan is being torn apart by ethnic violence. NPR's Scott Simon talks to David Deng, research director for the South Sudan Law Society, about efforts to save the country from a civil war.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Slaughter of hundreds of civilians in South Sudan last month has been described by the United Nations as a game-changer. Much of the violence has been revenge killings carried out by troops loyal to the country's president and rebels loyal to the deposed vice president.

The men belong to different ethnic groups, and the killings have largely been along tribal lines. Two sides recently signed a peace agreement, but each accused the other of violating it within just a few hours. David Deng is a human rights lawyer and the research director for the South Sudan Law Society in the capital of Juba.

He joined us in our studios to talk about the crisis. And warning here - some of the information is graphic and may be upsetting for younger listeners. We asked Mr. Deng why the world's newest country was being ripped apart by violence.

DAVID DENG: It's in the midst of a civil war and a very brutal one at that. As you mentioned, there were hundreds of people killed in several massacres recently, but before that, an untold thousands have died as a result of the conflict. We're also on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Seventy percent of the population, 7 million people, are at risk of severe food insecurity. Humanitarian agencies are warning of an impending famine. And I think all signs or indications are pointing towards a real bad situation.

SIMON: And the violence seems to be breaking down along ethnic lines?

DENG: Yes, to a large extent. Unfortunately, when you have a population of people who are faced with no opportunities in very difficult circumstances, they're very easily mobilized along ethnic lines. And that's what the leadership has done is used ethnicity as a tool to divide people.

SIMON: And what do you think moved the UN to describe it - the level of violence now is what they call a game-changer?

DENG: Well, we've seen a string of atrocities - deliberate targeting of civilians, killing of women and children - pregnant women, slicing babies out of women's stomachs, very horrible acts committed on both sides. And I think, finally, people have said enough is enough.

And we saw great diplomatic effort exerted by the UN, by the U.S. government with Kerry visiting recently, which has brought the parties to the negotiating table. And we have an agreement on paper, but there's a need to go beyond that to ensure that we really have a sustainable peace.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of those issues, particularly the notion of impunity because, you know, you've called for greater accountability from the two parties on these questions in particular. In a country is divided as South Sudan, does that get in the way of people trying to build the nation?

DENG: To the contrary, accountability is a necessary ingredient of any sustainable peace for several reasons. Past peace processes in South Sudan are typically initiated with blanket amnesty's. Now it's become a way of life, a livelihood for some of these actors to go and wreak havoc in anticipation of being rewarded for it in the peace process.

Secondly, the thing that's driving the violence is revenge killings among people. It's not that a member of the rebel or opposition group is fighting because they want Riek Machar to be president. They're fighting because they heard that their relative was killed in X place, and now they're going to find a member of the Dinka group and kill them because they know that the state is not going to provide them with justice.

So it's incumbent upon the state to provide justice services, to provide that option in the hopes that people can see that and it can be enough to disincentivize them from taking matters into their own hands.

SIMON: You've argued, I think, that a civil society is difficult to establish when a country is moving forward, in the period of history that South Sudan finds itself in right now. If you add to that what amounts to a war zone, how does that frustrate the effort?

DENG: It's very difficult. Society in South Sudan is more polarized than ever. People who are friends overnight became enemies, don't talk to each other, can walk past each other in the street without talking.

At the same time, we've seen in other contexts civil society really growing as a result of these sorts of challenges being put in front of you. And you know, knowing our society and knowing how resilient the people of South Sudan are, I'm confident that we will get through this conflict and that we will be better because of it.

SIMON: David Deng is research director for the South Sudan Law Society. That's a civil society organization that's based in Juba. Thanks so much for joining us in our studios today.

DENG: Thanks for having me.

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