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Clashes Continue In South Sudan Despite Calls For Cease-Fire

South Sudanese troops have retaken the flashpoint town of Bor, north of the capital Juba.
James Akena
South Sudanese troops have retaken the flashpoint town of Bor, north of the capital Juba.
Clashes Continue In South Sudan Despite Calls For Cease-Fire

It was a somber Christmas day in South Sudan. Despite an appeal for a Christmas cease-fire from the African Union, government soldiers and rebels clashed in an oil-rich part of the country.

At a church in the capital of Juba, President Salva Kiir called for peace and unity. Even the leader's choice of clothing — traditional robes instead of army fatigues — seemed to signal that he wants to move past the violence.

On Dec. 16, the day after South Sudan erupted in massive gun battles, Kiir ditched his trademark black cowboy hat and suit and appeared on television wearing army fatigues. He vowed retribution against his former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he claimed was the mastermind of a failed coup.

On Wednesday, in a speech at his Catholic church after Christmas services, President Kiir wore traditional African flowing robes and urged peace and reconciliation. But he still seemed ever the bush commander he was for most of his career, trying to boost the morale of his troops.

"What I want to tell you is that don't despair," Kiir said. "It will be the last [time] in the history of our young nation that such things happen."

Kiir seemed relaxed, even making a joke when the power went out. He could afford to be magnanimous to his rivals; his army had just announced it had retaken the main rebel stronghold in the city of Bor, some 60 miles north of the capital.

The leader has told U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth that he is willing to hold unconditional talks with Machar. The president did not mention his own tribe, the Dinka. Nor did he mention Machar's tribe, the Nuer.

But he said any soldiers killing people in the streets weren't acting in his name.

"Anybody that goes to the residential areas to kill people or to loot the property of others, hoping he's doing it to support me, must know that that person is not supporting me. In a sense, he is destroying me," he said.

Outside the church, people worried about what Kiir did not say. He did not say that he had arrested any of the soldiers who unleashed a week of terror on Nuer civilians in Juba, including murder, rape, torture and other abuses documented by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. Similar abuses were said to be committed by Nuer soldiers against Dinka in other parts of the country.

South Sudan has struggled to contain ethnic tension since its independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in 2011. The past week of violence has left thousands dead and tens of thousands displaced, afraid to go back to their homes for fear of ethnic retribution.

The violence stemmed from a power struggle between Kiir and Machar, two war heroes who made their names fighting their mutual enemy, Sudan, now fighting each other in what has been described as politics gone wild.

"They came as liberators. They came and took over power. But those who called themselves liberators are fighting themselves," says Jok Justin Ayoc, the leader of a political party opposed to the ruling party that both Machar and Kiir are fighting to control.

"If you are in power for eight years and cannot agree between yourselves, that is an organization which is there to loot a country," Ayoc says.

A delegation from the African Union is due in Juba on Thursday to foster negotiations between Kiir and Machar. The U.N. voted on Tuesday night to send thousands more peacekeepers into the country ahead of party elections next year.

Lasulba Memo, host of an evening radio show on the local Eye Radio, says people in South Sudan — especially the ethnically mixed capital — are wary. More than 10,000 people have taken shelter in the U.N. compound, afraid to return home.

"You want to look for people you can trust," Memo says. "So that's why there is now a sense of knowing who your neighbor is."

Memo says they're losing trust in the party leaders who won their freedom but are now failing to protect their safety.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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