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With its descent into an unconscionably self-destructive civil war, South Sudan lost its innocence, shattering the newly found hopes and aspirations of its people; a people that endured so much brutality for far too long. Little wonder that South Sudanese received the independence of their country with so much celebration and euphoria. For independence, as the ultimate embodiment of the struggle for freedom, was a promise for peace and stability, dignity and improved standard of living. After long and bitter struggle and huge scarifies paid in lives and limbs as well as large scale displacements, independence was the opportunity to sustain the end of the war and the misery and trauma it inflicted on South Sudanese.

Unfortunately, the excitement and hope of independence did not last long. South Sudan is in war again and this time against itself.

War is cruel. It turned the dreams of freedom into a tragic nightmare. Suffering, death, displacement and destruction has ones again become commonplace. As the civil war spread from Juba into other parts of South Sudan and continues to rage on, more than ten thousand people needlessly lost their lives. Counting the dead has not abated. In the most deadly attack on civilians, about 200 people were massacred in just one incident. Over a million others fled from their homes. Many continue to flee. According to the UN, South Sudan is now on the brink of famine. In the territories affected by the civil war, the little infrastructure that existed was destroyed and the economy collapsed.

It has now been close to five months and yet there is little sign of the end of this war. As the IGAD peace process in Addis Ababa stalls and the civil war takes a dangerous turn involving large scale ethnic massacres, there is no more pressing question at the moment than at what cost and how soon peace would be restored in South Sudan.

Bentiu as a watershed moment in the South Sudan civil war

One of the most recent fighting took place after the rebel forces of Reike Machar launched an offensive to seize Bentiu, the capital city of Unity State, one of the major oil producing states in South Sudan. Following a few days of fighting during the second week of April, Rebel forces captured Bentiu on 15 April 2014. As Bentiu fell into rebel hands, the worst incident of massacre of civilians since the war erupted in December 2013 took place. In a 21 April statement that condemned the incident, the UN Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) said that its investigators confirmed that ‘when SPLA in Opposition forces captured Bentiu on 15 and 16 April, they searched a number of places where hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians had taken refuge and killed hundreds of the civilians after determining their ethnicity or nationality.’

The rebel leader denied that the rebels committed the acts of massacre and blamed the killings on retreating government forces. According to one report, a member of the rebel group admitted the commission of the killings.

The violence took place in a number of sites where civilians took sanctuary from the conflict including a church, hospital and an abandoned UN World Food Programme (WFP) compound. But it was at the Kali-Ballee Mosque that most civilians who took shelter there were massacred. According to the UNMISS statement, ‘more than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded at the Mosque.’ In a development that evokes the memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, local radio, Radio Bentiu FM, was used to incite violence against certain ethnic groups and urge the use of rape.

Without a doubt the Bentiu massacre marks a watershed in the unfolding tragedy of South Sudan’s civil war. Surely, there were incidents of ethnic based killings in the course of this civil war. Indeed, When the conflict broke out in the army barracks in Juba on 15 December, some of the Dinka soldiers, as conservatively put, ‘went on a rampage killing scores of Nuer people’. This was followed by retaliatory attacks that targeted the Dinka in other cities including Bor, which was the site of the 1991 Bor massacre. No single previous incident since the war broke out last December comes near the scale of death in Bentiu on 15 and 16 April.

Surely, the conflict in South Sudan did not start as an ethnic conflict simplister. It was mainly, as South Sudan analyst Jok Madut Jok and Mahmood Mamdani pointed out, an extension of a power struggle among political elites. Yet, as noted above, from the very beginning the civil war had significant ethnic overtone pitting the members of the two major South Sudanese communities, the Dinka and the Nuer, against each other.

In a troubling sign echoing recent cycles of sectarian violence in neighbouring Central African Republic, the killings in Bentiu makes the risks of a cycle of retaliatory violence along ethnic lines ever present. This risk of further ethnicizaiton of the conflict was born by facts when on 17 April armed gunmen, some of them in uniform, opened fire on the population of 5,000 ethnic Nuers sheltering in UNMISS compound in Jonglei’s capital Bor. According to a statement by the African Union, in the incident ‘over 40 people were killed and many others were wounded.’ It was reported that Jonglei government officials described the attackers as Dinka Bor youth.

If the trend of mobilization of fighters along ethnic lines and the retaliatory cycle of ethnic killings continues (as it apparently stands to do), it would simply evolve into being mainly an ethnic conflict rather than a power struggle. Sadly, this would entrench the conflict further making it far more difficult than it already is.

Given the pre-existing politicisation of the identities of these communities, this deepening ethnicization of the conflict stands to further fuel the conflict. Indeed, the major fear in the current conflict is the risk that the ethnic dimension of the conflict acquiring a life of its own and going out of control. In such an event, it is likely to draw other communities assuming active part in the civil war, not to speak of the increasing regionalizaiton of the conflict.

The use of local radio for propagating violence at the time of the massacre is another unique feature of the killings in Bentiu from previous ethnic based killings. As the UN statement noted some rebels took the local radio to ‘broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu, and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.’

Real risk of worst case scenarios

War is necessarily a terrible experience. This is true even when it is undertaken for just causes such as self-defence or resistance to foreign or military occupation or for saving lives. When it happens for far less worthy reasons as in South Sudan, war takes the ugliest of its forms. As a mark of a watershed moment in the South Sudan current civil war, the Bentiu massacre says that this war has increasingly evolved from bad to worse. And very disturbingly, the worst may still be to come.

The time and available opportunity for salvaging South Sudan is fast slipping out of reach. Despite the good will underwriting them and the success in the signing of cessation of hostilities, the efforts of the IGAD have not only failed to yield progress but they are frustrated by lack of a unified and firm stand both within IGAD and between IGAD and its partners. Most notably, the actions of the warring parties promises more, rather than less, war. From the peace-making effort that has been underway since December 2013, the warring factions show very little desire to end the war soon. Even the cessation of hostilities agreement of 23 January 2014 was signed more due to the pressure that regional and international powers put on the parties than on account of the conviction of the parties for ending hostilities and their devotion to achieve settlement. In a manifest display of lack of commitment to end the war, both sides have breached the cessation of hostilities agreement starting from the day after it’s signing and they have been doing so many times since.

South Sudan is facing real risks of the worst-case scenarios of this civil war. One such scenario is the collapse of the country and its division into diverse fiefdoms of ethnic warlords with no one able to defeat anyone. This is what may be taken to be the Somalia scenario in the aftermath of the fall of Said Barre in 1991. The other scenario is the descent of South Sudan into a full-blown ethnic war reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Question is whether it would be wise to continue to treat it as any other civil war with the stalling peace talks in Addis as the primary regional and international effort and thereby remain to be spectators in the face of a major tragedy?