South Sudan Near The Brink Of Genocide, Observers Say The U.S. was instrumental in South Sudan's independence. Now, as East Africa Correspondent Gregory Warner tells NPR's Scott Simon, it's leading the effort to restore peace.

South Sudan Near The Brink Of Genocide, Observers Say

South Sudan Near The Brink Of Genocide, Observers Say

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The U.S. was instrumental in South Sudan's independence. Now, as East Africa Correspondent Gregory Warner tells NPR's Scott Simon, it's leading the effort to restore peace.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Ethnic violence in South Sudan threatens to spiral into genocide. That's according to the United Nations special advisor on prevention of genocide after a fact-finding mission. NPR's Gregory Warner is in the capital of Juba following a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry. Greg, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Describe for us, please, the humanitarian situation you see on the ground.

WARNER: Well, unfortunately, it looks a lot like it looked back in December when I was here when this conflict started. You have U.N. compounds crowded with people who are sleeping on the ground, afraid to leave. They say they'll be killed for their ethnicity. And the only difference, really, from December to now is that there's a lot more rain.

We're in the rainy season, which is posing a problem for humanitarians, somewhat in Juba but especially outside the capital where you have roads which are, you know, so bad they'll become impassable in the next few weeks. And that's going to make it very difficult to get in aid, get in supplies.

SIMON: Thousands of people have reportedly been killed in recent violence in this very new nation. Can you help us understand what led to the violence?

WARNER: Basically, this conflict, it stems from a power struggle between two very big people in South Sudan, the president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar. You have two guys who couldn't be more different. Kiir's this former commander from the independence struggle, a man of few words, in his ubiquitous black cowboy hat. And Machar is a smooth-talking, British-educated guy with a green philosophy who happens to be a huge fan of Karl Rove.

Now, besides being different personalities, these guys are also different tribes. And the tribal aspect of this conflict is what's triggered the most horrific aspects of this war. That's the violence that the pre-genocide label gets attached to.

SIMON: The United States has a lot at stake in South Sudan. It helped create the nation, first under President Bush and then President Obama in 2011. What's Secretary of State Kerry proposing?

WARNER: Well, Secretary Kerry has been talking about this idea of a transitional government. It's kind of - if you remember, back in January they tried a ceasefire that was disrespected by both sides because it told people to stop fighting. It didn't address why they were fighting, which was to control the government.

So now there's a conversation that Kerry's having with both President Kiir and over the phone with the rebel leader, Riek Machar, saying, OK, you guys need to sit down and discuss a transitional government that will include both tribes, but - at least we're reading between the lines here - probably not include either of you guys. Now, whether he can get that across might be possible. The U.S. does have a lot of power in this region. But it really does depend on these two sides sitting down.

SIMON: Greg, the U.N. special adviser says there's, quote, "the risk of genocide." That will make a lot of people wonder if we're on the verge of another Rwanda or Bosnia.

WARNER: One very chilling account was before the recent massacre in Bentiu. Rebel commanders were said to have used a local radio station to tell men to commit acts of rape against women from the ethnic opposition. That reminds people of Rwanda. The true fear - and this is already happening - is that this hate speech will blur the line between civilian and combatant.

And you know, you might think, well, how could a 9-year-old girl ever be punished as a combatant? But this is this dehumanizing calculus of tribal politics here, where to support your leader, to get him the votes you need, you terrorize or kill those who might now or in the future vote for the other guy who's terrorizing your people. So, you know, I think the risk of this becoming Rwanda is probably small. But the feeling is the role of politicians right now of creating a politically negotiated solution is vital, not only to avoid more killing, but to avoid this spiraling humanitarian situation where you have a million people displaced and the risk of famine.

SIMON: NPR's Gregory Warner in Juba, South Sudan. Thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks, Scott.

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