In South Sudan, billions of dollars are spent to keep the peace, while the authorities are optimistic, but the reality is bleaker. In the young country, the scope of law and order does not extend beyond the borders of the capital.
“South Sudan remains a peaceful country,” the government wrote in a booklet distributed to visitors and journalists in February on the occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to the country.
But during the first day of his visit in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, while the Supreme Pontiff was greeting the crowds, mass graves were being dug just a hundred kilometers away for 27 civilians who were killed with automatic weapons.
A few years after the end of the civil war in 2018, which claimed about 380,000 lives, armed violence continues to ravage this oil-rich country, although most of its population lives below the poverty line.
President Salva Kiir and his opponent, Riek Machar, formed a transitional government and agreed to unify their forces in the framework of one army to protect the population, which has suffered in recent decades from wars and climate disasters.
However, these intentions remained a dead letter, while acts of violence continued with impunity.
Human rights experts report that the worst atrocities recorded between 2013 and 2018 during the civil war, such as sexual slavery or deliberate starvation, have not stopped.
“We haven’t noticed any improvement in the level of violence in the country,” said Barney Avaco, a UN human rights expert, after a visit to South Sudan in February. “Juba is safer, but we are worried about what is happening outside,” he added.
In February, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan warned that armed groups had returned to activity in Upper Nile State, where artillery bombarded towns during large attacks involving thousands of soldiers.
In Jonglei and Pibor, heavily armed youths kidnapped women and children during violent attacks.
Tens of thousands of people have fled to UN bases, exacerbating Africa’s worst refugee crisis.
“Those who say the civil war is over are wrong,” said Kent Scott, the UN human rights commissioner for South Sudan and a consultant at Global Rights Compliance, a law firm calling for The Hague to open an investigation into senior officials for possible war crimes.
During his visit, the Pope lamented “the continued absence of security and the failure to fulfill the promises of peace” in this country.
“The years of war and conflict are endless,” he added.
However, the authorities do not like these statements.
The country’s president assured the Pope that Machar’s presence as vice president is proof that peace is continuing.
In February, the two leaders personally assured the millions of people who had fled the war that they could return home safely.
According to experts, the large-scale battles between the forces of the president and his vice president have subsided since the peace agreement.
The confrontations are described as local over ethnic problems and separate from national politics.
“If we randomly throw an arrow at a map of southern Sudan, we will find a conflict that has a political dynamic or a political engine,” said a Juba-based researcher who asked not to be identified.
“The peace agreement did not put an end to that,” he added.
Some criticize the United Nations mission, accusing it of drawing a sometimes contradictory picture of the situation.
In November, she said she was “encouraged” by the decline in civilian casualties.
But two months later, she confirmed that armed forces backed by the government burned people alive and gang-raped a child, causing his death.
“It is difficult for me to understand how they openly acknowledge this and then welcome the decline in violence,” said the researcher, who requested anonymity.
Agence France-Presse tried to contact the United Nations mission, but did not receive an answer.
The mission said in February that violence increased significantly at the end of 2022 due to the conflict in Upper Nile state, and accused local officials of being directly involved in it.
With a budget of roughly $1.2 billion annually, this mission is among the most expensive in the world.
“What the international community means to say when it confirms that there is peace is that there is no war in Juba,” said Joshua Craze, a writer who has focused his work on South Sudan for 10 years.