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Building peace through partnerships: A first-hand experience of South Sudan

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Building peace through partnerships: A first-hand experience of South Sudan

Friederike Bubenzer

05 Mar 2018

5min min read
  • Peace-building

e ate our first meal together in silence. The atmosphere was thick with uncertainty, fear and cautious optimism. Most people here in the dining hall had never met, never travelled in an aircraft, never visited Juba. The immense challenges South Sudan faces weigh heavily on the shoulders of these community leaders. To them, the age-old African proverb rings only too true: when the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. 

Being in a safe and quiet space like this offers respite and reflection time and is a stark reminder of the work that lies ahead. Up until South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the country had been at war with Sudan for more than 50 years. The joys of independence were short-lived. Civil war again erupted in 2013, which has since taken on political, ethnic and economic dimensions and caused a humanitarian crisis of colossalproportions. Two million people are estimated to be internally displaced and a further two million are living in refugee camps in the region. 

Humanitarian agencies warn of another famine: this year alone, two-thirds of the population will need food aid to stave off malnutrition and starvation. While the country’s leaders recently met in Addis Ababa to revitalise the stalled peace talks of 2015, the economy continues its free-fall. Inflation has sky rocketed, people are less and less able to access limited basic resources and salaries have not been paid in months. 

In a country like South Sudan, where conflict and displacement have shaped people’s lives, the diners’ hesitation to make contact with one another at this point was entirely unsurprising. Trust is a rare commodity here. Luckily, as a facilitator I know that by the next day participants will begin to feel lighter and that laughter, story-telling and vigorous debate will echo through the remaining days.

This was day one of a series of trainings of 80 community peace facilitators at Good Shepherd Peace Centre (GSPC), a catholic centre for human, pastoral and spiritual formation as well as peace building and trauma healing. We were a 30–minute drive on potholed roads from Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Like all capitals, this one is loud, overwhelming, noisy and dirty; an assault on all senses in 40°C heat. GSPC is the perfect antidote to Juba: lush green lawns and lazily creeping pink bougainvillea created a sense of calm and tranquility. For four weeks, this was our oasis away from the vast political and humanitarian crisis facing the country. Choosing a space like GSPC was deliberate: the ecology of space is critical to the difficult conversations we knew would emerge during our four-week assignment.

The peacebuilding project

A host of organisations have partnered on a major long-term project to bring peace to this newest African country. Leading the project is the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) – the matriarch of peacebuilding in South Sudan – and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a committed and longstanding international friend and ally of South Sudan that provides logistical and planning support. A multitude of international organisations including but not limited to USAID, NORAD, the EU, DFID, the Dutch and the Swiss provide funding. And finally there is us, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) – a small NGO from South Africa that has accompanied South Sudan on its reconciliation journey for more than 10 years.

 In 2016, to complement and boost South Sudan’s ongoing journey towards peace and healing, the SSCC developed an innovative and wide-reaching strategy called the Action Plan for Peace (APP): a home-grown and church-led roadmap towards peace and reconciliation. Recognising the importance of community participation in the implementation of sustainable peace processes, the SSCC has placed the Community Conversation process as a central feature of its Action Plane for Peace. By bringing people across the country together at a community level to listen to one another’s stories, using dialogue as a tool to jointly identify challenges and solutions, SSCC aims to enable the formation of a national-level reconciliation agenda. The SSCC is also engaging the Addis Ababa talks: its leadership has accompanied that process ever since the war broke out in 2013. But it recognises the importance of working at multiple levels and ensuring that everyone feels included and represented.

IJR was invited by SSCC and CRS to lead the training of over 200 individuals who were identified by SSCC and its state-level representatives as committed community leaders able to lead the roll-out of the Community Conversation process in their communities. Over four weeks in January and February 2018, a team of three IJR staff from SA and seven South Sudanese facilitators jointly hosted three trainings of up to 80 individuals each. The purpose of the trainings was to equip individuals with the necessary skills and knowledge to become facilitators of community conversations in the hundreds of communities that make up this beautiful but war-torn country. 

Participants were trained in the key concepts underlying the work they were going to do and explored the relationship between and manifestations of conflict, violence and peace. What is dialogue? How can it be used constructively and deliberately to bring people together and solve community conflicts? To illustrate and make the content of the training come alive, we used experiential learning based on action and reflection. In contexts such as South Sudan, where a room of 80 participants is likely to vary widely in terms of literacy and language proficiency, role play is an effective tool. 

Through role play, participants illustrate their understanding of new material while complementing it with demonstrations of local nuance and custom. IJR’s facilitation style was flexible and interactive, making ample time for participants to ask questions, share personal experiences and jointly map out the most effective ways to roll out the Community Conversation process. In this way, participants learn from one another’s rich experiences as much as they did from the facilitation team. 

Though SSCC and CRS have trained a separate cohort of individuals with the specific skills to respond to traumatised individuals, IJR firmly believes in the need to link peacebuilding and mental health, especially in contexts like South Sudan, where the majority of the population has been exposed to potentially traumatic experiences. As such, participants were also taken through an introductory session on what trauma is, how it can be recognised and how Psychological First Aid can be used as a first response tool by community leaders. Each training also made room for an elaborate cultural ceremony where individuals and groups were invited to perform local dances and songs. Inevitably all participants soon joined in one another’s dances; ululating, rejoicing, coming together despite the diversity of their respective styles.

On the last day of our stay at GSPC, I ate lunch with three 20-year-old women. As the lead coordinator of a training of this scale, my meals were always rushed as I tried to cram a seemingly endless to-do list of tasks into the 40-minute lunch break. On this day, something made me stop as I contemplated the women at my table. "Why are you here?" I asked them. In unison, they told me: "We are tired of war; if we don’t stop it, who will?"

By the time our last training had ended, the talks in Addis Ababa had gone into a less than satisfactory recess, the latest Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed between the warring parties in December 2017 had been violated multiple times and the currency in Juba had fallen by a further 2%. Every day participants reported of a lethal attack on a village, of the death of a child who couldn’t get to hospital in time, of the longing they felt for peace and stability. Despite this, people attended all sessions of the programme, sat up late at night copying notes and engaged all training topics with an astounding interest and commitment.

In the absence of leadership and governance at a national level, the need to support and build the capacity of a groundswell of community leaders and civil society groups in South Sudan could not be more urgent. Empowering leaders such as the ones we worked with at GSPC to have the knowledge, skills and support to bring their people together must continue to be a priority of organisations such as SSCC, CRS, IJR and others committed to bringing sustainable peace to South Sudan.

(Main image: Women from more than 40 South Sudanese womens organisations marched through the city on  9 December 2017 to express frustration at the suffering women and children face in Juba, South Sudan. Almost 1000 protesters participated, most of them covering their mouths with tape, as part of a 16 day activity with the theme End The War. – Stefanie Glinkski/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.