By Tiffany Easthom, Nonviolent Peaceforce Country Director in South Sudan, April 15, 2014
"As I sit in my office in Juba, watching the sky darken with rain clouds, I feel deeply reflective about this place that has been my home for the last four years. It was only four months ago today, when vicious fighting erupted, setting off the worst armed conflict South Sudan has seen since 2005. I cannot help but think of the light and happy mood that settled over everyone in those days before the clashes started and when the whole Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) team was in a festive mood. Most of the national colleagues were getting ready to visit their villages to be with their families and many of the international staff had scheduled their rest and relaxation break for the holiday season. An emergency response team was remaining in country on a "just in case" basis – just in case there was an emergency that needed response. But given the time of year, we were all expecting there to be a lot of downtime over the last two weeks of December. Yet with the shot of the first gun on the evening of December 15th, it all changed.
As people all over the country were preparing to be with their families for the yearend holidays; men with guns took over the streets turning neighborhoods into war zones. Heavy weapons were rolled out and the city was under siege, at war with itself. Within days, towns outside of Juba and some rural areas were engulfed. This sent men, women, boys and girls running for their lives. Thousands of people ran to the United Nation bases desperate to get inside a place where there might be safety. In the panic that comes with the sudden onset of fighting, children started to run and got lost from their families. Homes were abandoned and the precious things that we have in life got left behind. Those who could not go to the United Nation bases tried to run into the bush. They went as deep into the bush as they could, managing to find themselves without shelter, food, or even drinking water.
As with all war, the decisions made by a very few affect the many. War is so easily begun and so terribly difficult to end. While the peace talks stop and start in Addis Ababa, the momentum of the conflict continues to unfold. Fighting is happening around the country. I just had to pause while typing, to take a call from one of our teams. They let us know fighting had broken out 50 kms to the north of where they are now. Every day that this war continues people are hurt, scared, and families are separated. Despair, anger and the desire for revenge sets in. Today, only 120 days since December 15th, nearly one million people have displaced from their homes. This is a number that is hard to envision for most of us, it is so big we tend to not even think of it as real. But we must force ourselves to understand what this means! A million people in just over 100 days have had their lives turned upside down. Tens of thousands of people have already been killed through direct violence and the country is on a collision course with a famine. This famine, if not interrupted immediately, is predicted to be catastrophic. For those of us who remember the haunting photos from the famine camps in East Africa in the 1980s, this is the level of emergency South Sudan may be facing if nothing changes.
Violent conflict not only causes death and destruction at the end of the gun, it disrupts life entirely. Markets have been destroyed, major town infrastructure has been damaged, and foreign traders have withdrawn in fear. Trade routes have been cut off, livestock has been stolen or killed, and those who would normally be planting subsistence crops have been displaced. Therefore, crops to ensure survival through the rainy season are not going into the ground. This means there will be no food when it is needed. Medical clinics all over the country have been attacked, looted or occupied. This has cut off communities from what was already limited and basic health care. Many schools around the country have ceased to function; teachers and students alike have fled. School facilities have also been damaged and supplies have been stolen or simply destroyed. The children of South Sudan, the children finally born into peace, find themselves now reliving the childhoods of the generation before them. War is suddenly the framework upon which their young lives are being built.
I find myself grasping for the right words to explain how it feels, what it all means and why it matters. Why should it matter to people outside of South Sudan? We know that the news is full of sad tales. The war in Syria rages on, the crisis in the Central African Republic is tragic and the drums of war are pounding in the Ukraine. In the newest country in the world, South Sudan, the hope that one feels for the new and the possible has faded. Images of suffering are ubiquitous and calls for support are plentiful. What I do know is all of those big stories are simply a compilation of individual stories- It is like a mosaic with the overall image dependent on innumerable tiny tiles to make it what it is. Working on the ground in a conflict zone teaches you this in the most visceral way.
Nonviolent Peaceforce's protection work brings us into the heart of those individual stories. Living and working 24/7 within affected communities, we get to know the people behind the statistics. We learn their stories, we share their laughter and sometimes their tears. We do everything we can to help make their days and nights safer. What we know is that like with all of us, an "internally displaced person" or a "refugee" or a "conflict affected person" is a sum of their parts. They are not simply the label that helps us to categorize aid responses.
I think this is what puts the fire in the belly of the Nonviolent Peaceforce team. Working in the most difficult of circumstances, facing insecurity and physical discomfort, the Nonviolent Peaceforce teams throw themselves into their work every single day. They understand that while they may not have the power to stop the war, everything they do during the day pushes the crushing impact of war back from our South Sudanese brothers and sisters- who we work with and for. I am constantly moved by the deep reservoir of strength, courage and commitment the teams draw from everyday. I am touched by how we have to scold them into taking a day off or resting for an evening.
It matters because it matters. It matters because of what we have in common is our humanity and that does not stop at the border of a nation state, the color of the skin or the name of the tribe. If we don't take care of each other, who will?"
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)