On the eve of the International Day of Non-Violence, I find myself ruminating on the latter part of the convention which states the desire "to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence." Just before South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, I embarked on two trips there. Those visits are at the forefront of my mind. Those weeks and months were a demarcation point where promise became missed opportunity.
When I landed in Juba on my first trip, the tarmac was home to UN and World Food Program planes. An official cease-fire had been established, creating a legal pause that referenced the 22-year civil war that ostensibly ended in 2005. The city's infrastructure had been decimated and the occasional burned out tank and truck dotted the landscape, left to rust to whatever unceremonious end came to them. Shortly after arriving I travelled to Jonglei, close to the border between the north and south in order to conduct research for a future documentary film project.
The route to Jonglei was absent of any signs of the international community that I encountered at the airport, even though the United Nations had established UNMISS in 2011 with a mandate of "Protection of Civilians" among others. I found myself immersed in an arid landscape, whose population was acquiescing to lawlessness. Child soldiers manned arbitrary border crossings in the middle of the desert.
At one such stop, military men assaulted women in the near distance as we rushed through. I was warned, aggressively, to look away and keep moving for the sake of our own safety. To this day, when I think about that moment, I am overwhelmed with shame for not insisting that my driver stop the vehicle.
The trip across that desert haunts me.
Back in Juba, there was an encounter with a veteran Colonel who I befriended from the South Sudanese army. At his compound, I told him about my time in Jonglei and noted that the war between the primarily Muslim north and Christian south seemed to still hang in the air.
With cold regret he told me that the conflict was admittedly about the oil that was in the middle and the religious overtones were simply a highly effective propaganda tool. His admission was something I had suspected but his confirmation was admittedly deflating.
An entire generation had been lost to a lie.
I found a much different South Sudan during my second trip, occurring two months before the election where the people would vote to establish their independence from the Bashir regime in Khartoum. The few tenuous signs of peace during my first experience were now rooted in genuine hope. The population was eager to rebuild and restart their country. People felt the sacrifice the previous generation had made was going to be validated.
The Colonel met with me, and he proudly stated; "I took the sword so others may take the pen." I visited the Dean of the University of Juba who felt it was paramount that he remained in the country to provide post-secondary education to uneducated youth, and work with civil society members who were searching for the right stone to rebuild their churches.
Regrettably, in 2012 South Sudan declared Jonglei a disaster after 100,000 locals were forced to flee because of increasing clashes and violence. The porous demilitarized zone where the oil is located has faltered. In December of 2013, civil war erupted, resulting in 2.3 million people to be internally displaced or become refugees.
While we celebrated the elections that gave birth to the newest democracy on the planet, we also failed to develop a plan to help the nascent nation and ally have adequate and effective resources to to flourish and become self-sufficient.
As recently as September 23rd Human Rights Watch published an open letter to the UN Security Council, imploring them to impose an arms embargo in order to quell civilian causalities and keep UNMISS from becoming feckless.
The international community had an opportunity to articulate the values purported in the conventions that embody the International Day of Non-Violence. By allowing South Sudan to break into widespread conflict again, on our watch, is both heartbreaking and corrosive to our values as humanitarians. Peacekeepers and peacemakers have an ethical responsibility to make tangible progress not just promises.
On this International Day of Non-Violence let us renew our commitment to this generation that together, we will foster peace and end conflicts. South Sudan is a country eager to retain its democracy and build a culture of sustained peace.