NP has been working in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, since June 2012. Throughout December 2013 and January 2014, violence consumed vast swathes of South Sudan, and Bor changed hands four times; the town was devastated. Residences and market stalls were razed, the hospital and university facilities were ravaged, and numerous humanitarian compounds were looted. Nearly all of the civilians fled if they were able.
At the start of January 2014, NP was able to return to Bor and work with those of the community, mostly Nuer, who had sought refuge within the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilians (PoC) area in Bor.
"The absence of active fighting in Bor between the armed forces of the conflict parties allowed the slow return of the majority Dinka community, despite continued fighting in other parts of the country. In an effort to work not only with the Nuer community still experiencing insecurity and taking refuge inside the UN base, but also with the Dinka and other ethnic groups who were returning to Bor, NP resumed its work in Bor town in September 2014."
One key activity NP is carrying out in town is the establishment of Community Security Meetings aimed at creating a venue for local chiefs to convene and build relationships among themselves; a forum for dialogue between community leaders and the local government and humanitarian organizations; and a means to support mechanisms of community-level accountability. Before the outbreak of the current civil war last December, the community had been hosting regular “block leader meetings” to which NP was frequently invited. However, the displacement caused by the violence in Bor disrupted these meetings and the relationships among local leaders that were built up around the initiative. “Fake” chiefs appeared, trying to gain access to power. Existing chiefs had to serve new community members from Duc and Twic East counties who had never before lived in Bor town, but only recently displaced there. Mistrust between the chiefs and local government officials ran high, as the government struggled with how to serve newly returned communities.
As NP relaunched its work in Bor town, NP found that local leaders were eager to have the community meetings restored as a way for them to improve coordination and communication with the local government and to rebuild the relationships among the chiefs. The community security meetings have also highlighted the opportunity to authenticate block leaders and establish a useful local leadership structure linked to both government and communities.
After only three meetings, conducted twice-monthly, the Community Security Meetings have already succeeded in creating a forum for local leaders to engage with humanitarian partners and local government officials about their concerns. NP engages with the chiefs several times a month to prepare for these meetings, often finding them in their homes and in local tea shops to discuss issues of facilitation, agendas, and proposed participants. After the meetings, NP follows up on specific concerns presented by the chiefs to ensure that the relevant actors, particularly on the humanitarian side, are present at the next meeting to address those issues.
Each meeting has demonstrated improvements from the previous meeting. On September 30th, the second Community Security Meeting took place, including representatives from multiple constituencies that had not participated in the first meeting. Two women’s leaders participated to give voice to the concerns of the women of the community. There was also a chief from the Anyuak, one of the minority ethnic groups residing in Bor town. NP is building relationships with leaders of the other ethnic groups, including Murle, Jie, and Kachipo, each a minority tribe in Bor and in Jonglei state, so that they can participate in future meetings. These efforts to expand the inclusiveness of the meetings – and the willingness of the chiefs to welcome these minority groups – demonstrate significant potential to restore broken bonds in Bor town.
One of the NP staff attending the meeting was urged to speak by the block leaders. She pointed out the Dinka chief who had been translating the meeting, held in Dinka, into Arabic for the Anyuak chief. “It’s these small examples of helping people from other communities that are inspiring. This is where peace starts.” The leaders applauded their approval.
However, the chiefs are still facing difficult truths about the larger intercommunal relationships in Bor. The leaders challenged the humanitarian actors, asking them why they were providing charcoal for those Nuer inside the PoC area and not for those Dinka living in town, claiming the humanitarians were fomenting divisions in society. A prominent local government official challenged them in return, “It’s because you attacked them [the people inside the PoC].” He elaborated that the government supported the humanitarian partners’ decision to supply charcoal to the IDPs in the PoC. He reminded them how those outside the PoC had free access to firewood, while the IDPs faced severe insecurity when they tried to leave the UN base to collect firewood, making the provision of charcoal by humanitarians necessary for the IDPs safety and access to basic needs. “It is the government’s responsibility to protect all of its citizens,” he explained. “And it is the community’s responsibility to create peace. The community should start raising concerns on behalf of their colleagues inside the PoC, so that they would know the community is welcoming them and interested in their needs.” The leaders seemed to recognize the value of this principle, but there is still a long way to go to turn it into a reality.
This is an exciting facet of renewed programming for NP in Bor. It has potential to be sustainable beyond NP’s involvement. It fits into NP’s unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) strategies of structural engagement and confidence building by supporting community-based conflict mitigation mechanisms and local systems of accountability. It opens doors into further UCP programming both in Bor town and outside of town. NP strongly agrees with the government official who spoke so movingly. It is the community’s responsibility to create peace – and NP will continue to support them in that endeavor. The Community Security Meetings are a model place to start.
By Calista Pearce and Britt Sloan