South Sudan: Dealing with the past in order to face the future

Credit: Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

In southern Unity state, South Sudan, everyone has a story of personal trauma. When the violence spread once more in May last year, people fled into the swamps for the second time since civil strife broke out in the world’s newest state in December 2013.

There, surviving on water lilies and fish, they hid from the threat of rape and killing, concealing themselves in the water by day, and bitten relentlessly by mosquitoes by night. 
 
Today, those that remain in hiding face a further threat — catastrophic levels of food insecurity. Even those who managed to travel by canoe to safer areas are completely dependent on host communities, who share with them their homes and food, despite meagre supplies.

Credit: Christian Aid/Rosie Crowther

In August, a peace agreement was signed, but the prognosis remains grim. The agreement itself is fraught with difficulty and delays, based on shaky compromise and signed under pressure with reservations. Meanwhile, the economy has deteriorated with some 3.9m people across the country now at risk from severe food insecurity. 
 
At the same time, previously peaceful regions of the country have been caught up in the fighting in recent months, with reports of multiple human rights abuses on all sides. 
 
It is the violence and the accompanying trauma that help make the prospect of peace seem so elusive. A recent survey by the South Sudan Law Society found that 41% of participants showed symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, levels comparable with post-genocide Rwanda.

Some 63% reported that a close family member had been killed and 41% reported that they have witnessed a friend or family member being killed.

The impact of repeated exposure to trauma cannot be underestimated. Many South Sudanese — including political and military leaders — have never experienced peace. Trauma has profound implications for mental health, while historic grievances left unaddressed make for an unstable future. Understanding this deep-seated trauma must be fundamental to any peace-building approach.

Credit: Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

In June, a delegation of South Sudanese church leaders travelled to Rwanda, at the invitation of churches there. Sharing their experiences of trauma, the South Sudanese heard how the Rwandans had found ways to address anger and bitterness, after the 1994 genocide. 
 
Following the visit, the South Sudan Council of Churches (an ecumenical body of the main churches in South Sudan) published a Statement of Intent.

“We have learned many things from them [the Rwandans], the need for reconciliation, forgiveness, humility, unity and leadership.
 
“We have seen how important forgiveness is: the person who does not forgive remains a prisoner of their own bitterness, and only he or she holds the key to that prison. To free another person is to free yourself; reconciliation must begin with yourself; only if you heal yourself can you hope to heal others…”

 
Such sentiments can be seen as indicating, at least on the part of some, a determination to try to make a lasting peace. Whatever its fragility, the agreement does, after all, present a national structure that can begin to address the many challenges ahead — including the establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity, along with security arrangements, resource and economic management, and humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. 
 
It is critical, however, that approaches to peace-building look beyond the agreement itself and encourage local communities to interact with the national processes taking place, giving them a stake in developments. This must include dealing with personal and communal trauma, if the past is not to contaminate the future. 
 
Perhaps Bishop Paride Taban, UN peace prize recipient who is regarded as South Sudan’s Desmond Tutu, has it right. At 80, he is one of few who can remember a time of peace. His approach may not provide an instant solution but it is a starting point that others could emulate.

Bishop Paride Taban who created the Kuron Peace Village Credit: Christian Aid/Natalia Chan

“Every morning I say these words and sentences, and that helps me to deal with trauma. 
 
“Love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, sympathy, kindness, truthfulness, gentleness, self-control, humility, poverty, forgiveness, mercy, friendship, trust, unity, purity, faith, hope.
 
”The sentences: I love you, I miss you, thank you, I forgive, we forget, together, I am wrong, I am sorry. If all put this into their hearts, every day they repeat, there will be no wars in South Sudan, there will be permanent peace.”
 
Natalia Chan is Senior Advocacy and Policy Officer, East Africa for Christian Aid.