LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. It got its independence six years ago and then plunged pretty quickly into civil war. Today, it's suffering one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the world. But it's a story that's hard to cover because South Sudan is one of the hardest places for journalists and aid workers to operate. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta has managed to do some reporting from South Sudan. He joins us now from his base in Nairobi.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hi, Lauren.
FRAYER: You've visited refugee camps in the area. You've been following this humanitarian disaster. What are you hearing about the situation on the ground in South Sudan?
PERALTA: You know, the most awful part about this story is the unbelievable toll it's taken on civilians. More than 2 million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries. And at one point earlier this year, the fighting was so bad that people were dying of hunger in some parts of South Sudan. Right now we're getting comprehensive studies done that tell us how vast the suffering is. One of those studies was done by George Washington University, and it found that a third of the women they surveyed had suffered some kind of sexual violence. You know, the troubling part is, if you look at the number of people fleeing, this is not getting any better. Right now we're seeing a spike in refugees. About 400,000 South Sudanese have crossed the border to neighboring countries, and that's just in the past two months alone.
FRAYER: And yet, a glimmer of hope - just this past week, some news of a cease-fire.
PERALTA: Yeah, I don't know how much hope it is, though. You know, the rebels and the government had talks in Ethiopia, and they agreed to a cease-fire on Christmas Eve. But that same evening, there was fighting across the country. The government says that's because their forces were attacked. And earlier, I spoke to a spokesman for the main rebel group, Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel, and he says exactly the same thing, that they are reacting to government forces. Let's listen.
LAM PAUL GABRIEL: We stay put so that we'll only be acting in self-defense.
PERALTA: So he's saying they are acting in self-defense. He says that this is part of a plan by the government to take as much territory as possible so they can be in a better negotiating position if peace talks kick off early next year. What he told me is that the government wants to, quote, "wipe them out before those talks begin."
FRAYER: Let's just back up a little bit. Who are these warring parties, and what are they fighting over?
PERALTA: You know, it all started in 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his vice president, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup. And that devolved into civil war. A lot of the fighting now has tribal overtones, and the opposition has fractured into a bunch of different groups. And even the government has been on the brink of warring against itself. Right now what's going on is an effort to try to get all of these groups back to the negotiating table, to try and get them to live up to the promise they made in a 2015 peace deal. And that broken cease-fire was supposed to be a first step. But obviously, that just hasn't worked out as planned.
FRAYER: What's the U.S. role now?
PERALTA: You know, the U.S. has stood by the government of South Sudan. But just a couple of months ago, things changed dramatically. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, made a visit to South Sudan, and she said the government had to stop its offensive. She blamed them for most of the ethnic killings. And that pressure helped to bring everyone together in Ethiopia and lead to this cease-fire agreement. But the U.S. also issued a warning and said that it will hold people responsible if the fighting doesn't stop. The fighting has not stopped, and it's unclear what the U.S. will do. And that's a really important question because the U.N. has called this latest cease-fire the last chance for peace in South Sudan.
FRAYER: NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta, thank you.
PERALTA: Thank you, Lauren.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Nikki Haley is described incorrectly as the U.S. ambassador to the United States. In fact, she is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.]
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