Tank in South Sudan Juba 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Hakim George)
On Tuesday, UN officials announced that a mass grave containing 34 bodies had
been found in the town of Bentui in South Sudan. On Wednesday, Washington
announced that US Marines were being flown to Uganda to aid in the evacuation of
American citizens and to carry out other missions as needed. These developments
paint a picture of an escalating crises, even as rebel leader Riek Machar says
he is ready for talks with the government.
Fears of civil war and ethnic
conflict mounted last week in South Sudan when President Salva Kiir accused
Machar, a former vice president, of plotting a coup. Kiir is a member of the
Dinka tribe, South Sudan’s largest, while Machar is a Nuer, which is the
second-largest tribe in the country. The ethnic-political split has stoked fears
of vicious conflict, similar to that which marred Kenya’s 2008 election
campaign, when thousands died.
South Sudan is one of the most diverse
places in Africa, with more than 60 ethnic groups among almost 10 million
people. The Dinka number about 1.5 million and the Neur around 800,000. These
two groups have often dominated South Sudan. In the early 20th century, they
fought several wars with each other. It was Dinka and Neur who dominated the
rebel leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. John Garang (1945-2005),
the driving force behind South Sudan’s struggle for independence from the
genocidal Islamists in north Sudan, was a Dinka.
When South Sudan became
independent in 2011, it crowned years of struggle. Aid workers and investment
poured into the country. But the tragic breakdown last week taints the fight for
independence. South Sudan faces terrible problems; it is desperately poor and is
trying to improve its oil export infrastructure. It still faces intractable
conflict with the north over several key oil fields. The last thing it needs is
a simmering civil war that would transform it into a lawless region like Somalia
Commentators have noted that the decline into tribal violence
in South Sudan is part of an overall process in the Middle East and parts of
Asia and Africa, where tribal-religious violence is becoming ever-present. It is
precisely for this reason that the international community must help to restore
order in South Sudan. So far the international community has reacted by pulling
out foreigners from the area, airlifting thousands of Americans and EU nationals
on UN flights.
This is reminiscent of the failed UN mission in Rwanda two
decades ago, where protecting foreign nationals was seen as more important than
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, however, seems now
to be showing commitment to the country. He has dispatched an additional 5,000
troops to the area and declared, “The United Nations will stay with you. We will
do our utmost to protect you, to provide the humanitarian assistance you need,
and most of all to help the country regain the path to
Supposedly, 11 senior South Sudanese politicians, some of them
government ministers, detained by Kiir’s forces during the coup attempt have
called for an end to violence.
African states such as Uganda have
dispatched mediators to try to talk Kiir down from further action and find a
solution. “We don’t want another Rwanda here,” one said.
Israel has been
a supporter of the South Sudanese since before independence and has been keen to
develop relations with the country. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman
illustrated that with a phone call to South Sudan Foreign Minister Dr. Barnaba
Marial Benjamin on Tuesday, saying he hoped the conflict would end soon and that
Israel was prepared to send humanitarian assistance.
Committee Executive Director David Harris has expressed support for the UN’s
“The US and international community were essential to
creating the conditions for South Sudan’s independence, and now will be critical
to ending the bloodshed, and to stabilizing the country and setting it on a
hopeful course,” said Harris. These responses by Israel and by Jewish leaders
are a step in the right direction. It is essential that US President Barack
Obama and other world leaders speak out about this issue. The world has a chance
to show that the mistakes of the 1990s in ignoring genocide in Africa will not