By Hiroko Hirahara
Christmas Eve, 2018: whipped up by gusts of wind, clouds of dust danced the parched streets — which were barely visible under the feet of the throngs of people crowding the area. At minimum, there were at least several thousand gathered on the road.
“Thank you, UNMISS! Thank you, Hiroko! It looks like we will finally have peace here!” were the jubilant cries of the youth, whose faces glowed with uninhibited joy. The streets were a whirlwind of colourful and vibrant fabrics as the local women danced their traditional dance and raised their voices in jovial song. That day, the state governor of the opposition would return to the state capital, Bentiu, for the first time in five years.
The people had left the safety of the civilian protection sites, spilling out onto the outside streets, to ensure they did not miss the opposition governor’s grand entrance. We waited alongside the UN troops and UN police, electric frissons of expectation and excitement running down our backs also as we anticipated his arrival.
For the first three years of my job, I was stationed in Eastern Equatoria, where the situation was relatively calm and stable. During my third year there, while I was considering moving to another mission, I was informed that I would be reassigned to the Bentiu Field offices.
I was under no illusion that the relocation to Bentiu would be, by any means, easy. Even the ten veteran Heads of Field Offices at UNMISS spoke of Bentiu’s hardships and challenges. I had no qualms or fears about the situation there, but I certainly doubted myself, wondering whether I was capable of making any impact.
South Sudan, the country that had gained independence from Sudan in July of 2011. Though the nation is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and innumerable amounts of potential, it unfortunately also bears numerous internal problems. Just two years after South Sudan had gained independence, its capital city of Juba was thrown into the throes of civil war due to a conflict between the nation’s president and vice president. Many people fled, leaving their homes for safer areas. Unity, one of South Sudan’s states located far from the capital city, was no exception. Many entered the UN compound in Bentiu seeking the protection of the UNMISS.
The massive influx of people overextended the capacity of the compound, and it quickly became evident that expansion was necessary. This led to the creation of a new type of camp, called the “Protection of Civilian Site”, housing over 113,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Bentiu population is comprised entirely of the Nuer tribe and is divided into two factions; one of the factions supports the government, while the other is the opposition. Armed confrontation continued to the point where even families were divided based on their political affiliations.
As the UN itself is often a target of violence and extremism, I wondered what I could do to effectively help the people — especially those who fall into the “Vulnerable Group” category, including women, children, and elders — and deeply contemplated how best to protect the defenceless people. Day after day, I spoke, negotiated, and even argued with the state governor and the leaders of the opposition until we arrived at an eventual degree of mutual understanding and developed trust. As long as there remained an impasse on the peace agreement between the government and opposition, we had to deal with — and actively worked to prevent — countless incidents, accidents, crimes, and revenge killings. Efforts to protect and keep the peace in the ever-expanding UN protection site exhausted our team, and we often wondered, with a sense of dread, what sort of future awaited this struggling nation.
The turning point, it seemed, had finally arrived in September of last year. The presidents of Sudan and Uganda intervened, helping to facilitate a peace agreement. The implementation of the agreement, however, remained slow. The exhausted people of Bentiu, fed-up of war, started peace-building initiatives among themselves on a smaller scale. The government and opposition leaders began speaking to others. We also joined, declaring, “The local-level peace building is our utmost priority.” As the head of a UNMISS field office, I backed the government and opposition’s joint initiative. One continued to linger in the back of everyone’s mind: “If this does not go well, there will be no ‘second chance.’”
On 15 December, the state governor whispered some unexpected news.
“Hiroko,” he said, “I’ve just received word that the opposition governor will be returning from Sudan soon. He wants to hold a joint peace march together with us.”
To ensure their safety, many supporters of the opposition had sought refuge in the PoC Site in Bentiu. Some of the opposition combatants travelled even farther, settling in a small village to the north of the South Sudanese border for about five years. The opposition governor was said to be returning from this village.
“Is this really true?” was my dubious reply. The two factions had been at each other’s throats for far too long, unable to have any sort of discourse or negotiation without resorting to fighting. It was hard to believe that such a thing — a joint peace rally between the two factions — could happen. The state governor, however, looked contemplative all the same.
“Perhaps we can finally attain peace,” he said delightedly. I remained somewhat skeptical and decided to contact the opposition commanders. To my utter disbelief, they confirmed the truth of this news: The two factions had organised a peace rally and would walk side-by-side.
“Hiroko,” he added, “we’re counting on the support of the UNMISS.” Upon being told this, we at the UNMISS office assembled frantically to discuss these proceedings and how best to offer our support. Everyone in the office was much too excited to hide their happiness. The talks between the factions proceeded smoothly, culminating in an agreement that six hundred supporters of the opposition — led by the governor of the opposition — would arrive in Bentiu on Christmas Eve. On top of this, the opposition party would proceed from the border escorted by the government’s army, not by their own soldiers.
Christmas Eve finally arrived. The IDPs, who had, just last month, been unable to take even a step outside of the PoC Site, flowed steadily into the outside streets. The people’s smiles grew as they waved cheerfully at the government’s army, of whom they had once been terrified. The government’s soldiers beamed and waved back, and all animosity between the two factions seemed forgotten. A meeting was held at the site, and leaders from the government and opposition stepped onto the stage. They joined together in calling out, “Everyone, please forgive us for everything that has happened up until now. From now on, let’s work together to realise peace in this nation.”
Suddenly, one military commander turned around. He craned his neck, eyes roaming the masses of people until they finally fell on where I was sitting in the back of the crowd. He then proclaimed, “Today, we must also thank UNMISS and the woman who heads its field office here in Bentiu.”
We, who tried hard to retain the UN’s stance of impartiality in all of our efforts, had often been criticised by the government for protecting the interests of the opposition. We had been accused also by the opposition of being the mouthpiece for the government. As we basked in the warmth of the officer’s kind praise and the people’s appreciative murmurs, I realised that this was the moment that made all of our work worth it; this was the moment that people on both sides finally understood — even just a little — the work that the UN undertakes.
Unfortunately, many countries in Africa are still embroiled in serious conflict, the continent itself ravaged by the damaging effects of these wars. I, as a UN officer and a long serving staff of peacekeeping missions, believe there is something we must not forget: No matter what the situation looks like, we must serve the people and their communities with respect. We are in no position to be conceited or arrogant; we have much to learn from the people we encounter, who embrace us with their culture and traditions. We need to try our best to understand their perspectives, just as if we were in our own country.
A meeting was held at Addis Ababa on 3 May, as the transitional period was to start on 12 May. Due to slow progress in the implementation of some important provisions of the agreement, however, the inauguration date of the transitional government had been set back six months. While there are pessimistic murmurs that the peace agreement will remain at a standstill, many continue to be hopeful, beginning to believe in peace. These efforts of local engagement, rapprochement, and peacebuilding are not seen only in Bentiu. Such efforts have spread and are being actively carried out in other regions.
The initiative for peace between the government and opposition was a painstaking effort, emerging slowly from the ground-up like new shoots of grass. Much progress has been made already, and it is all of our hope that this time, the peace agreement will hold and the people will finally be able to enjoy lasting peace.
The author is Head of Field Office in Bentiu for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).