NAIROBI: As East African mediators attempt to push South Sudan’s government and rebels into signing a truce, analysts and diplomats fear it may already be too late to stop a war.
Regional nations are trying to broker a ceasefire but have already been drawn into the brutal five-week-old conflict, with Ugandan troops battling alongside government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir.
The longer it continues, the more “those who have remained on the sidelines are increasingly pulled into the conflict,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned in a statement this week.
“Each day that the conflict continues, the risk of all-out civil war grows as ethnic tensions rise,” she added.
Many say it already is a civil war, pitting a conventional army against a loose alliance of mutinied army units and ethnic militia. Each side has been deploying heavy weapons, fighting has been fierce and protracted, and key towns have been changing hands each week.
South Sudanese government forces backed by Ugandan troops on Saturday recaptured the strategic town of Bor, defeating an army of thousands of rebels, officials said.
A day earlier, the United Nations’ top human rights envoy Ivan Simonovic, who has gathered reports of mass killings, sexual violence and widespread destruction, said South Sudan was now in a state of “internal armed conflict” and that the laws of war were applicable.
Talks in neighboring Ethiopia are being mediated by the East African regional bloc IGAD, even though Uganda is a key member and the rebels have expressed concern about its neutrality.
Rebel chief Riek Machar has accused Ugandan fighter jets of targeting him and is also deeply critical of suggestions that Sudan, another IGAD member, could deploy troops to help Juba protect oil fields from the rebels.
Kenya, which sent in troops to evacuate citizens, also warned in a confidential briefing document this week of the “internationalization” of the conflict.
Rebels from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, nervous of a pact between their old allies in Juba and their enemy in Khartoum, are also reportedly operating in oil-rich border zones.
The crisis on the ground, therefore, seems to be moving faster than the peace talks and out of the control of the politicians who sparked it.
“We are heartbroken to see what was purely a political problem ... quickly slide into an ethnic one on a rapid and frightening scale,” read a statement from the South Sudan Council of Churches, an influential coalition of religious leaders.
Violence is rooted in decades-old grievances between former rebels turned political leaders, combined with unhealed wounds left over from the two-decades-long civil war that preceded South Sudan’s independence from Khartoum in 2011.
Many appear deeply pessimistic that even if a political deal is struck, the conflict pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka people – the country’s largest group – against Machar’s Nuer has reached a point of no return.
“Handshakes, smiles and a mere political settlement between the two parties will not set South Sudan on a path towards truth, sustainable peace, democracy and the rule of law,” wrote David Deng from the South Sudan Law Society, a civil society organization, and human rights lawyer Elizabeth Deng.
“The two parties should be compelled to submit themselves and their supporters to an independent investigation into the crimes committed,” they wrote in a joint commentary on the crisis.
And Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. special envoy to the country, said in a report for the United States Institute of Peace think tank that the talks “cannot simply return the country to the previous status quo.”
“For lasting peace, the negotiating parties and mediators will need to reach beyond national political elites and those bearing arms and invite active involvement of the international community,” he wrote.
On the ground, the pattern appears to be sliding toward that of the 1983-2005 southern civil war when Sudan was a united nation and the government controlled towns but multiple rebel forces claimed swathes of countryside.
“There is no military solution,” said the group Citizens for Peace and Justice, a coalition of academics and society leaders, calling the conflict “a crisis engulfing the whole country.”
Jok Madut Jok, a former senior government official and academic now running the Sudd Institute, has warned that “what started as a political confrontation between power contenders ... has now evolved into a military revenge and counter-revenge” along ethnic lines.
Jok warned of civil war “should the IGAD-led initiative for a dialogue fail to produce a quick deal.”
Kiir could be “threatened with regional isolation if he shows any intransigence, but little can be done to pressure Mr. Machar,” Jok added, saying the rebel leader has “very little to lose.”
As the number of those displaced by fighting touches half a million, those affected say their dreams of building a new nation are shattered.
“We thought we were dreaming of peace, but now we are back in war, it’s a circle,” said teacher Simon Thon, 31, who fled across the White Nile river from fighting in the rebel-held town of Bor with his heavily pregnant wife, who has since given birth to a boy under a tree.
“When you hear your neighbor calling you, you go. What you do not expect is for that neighbor to then start shooting to kill you ... that is what happened to us.”