With the threat of armed conflict with Sudan on its northern border, and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raiding its southern border, the new country of South Sudan – formed only last year – is facing a hard task in finding the peace it so desperately needs.
Nonviolent Peaceforce is quickly becoming a growing presence there among the international nongovernmental organizations trying to help. In just three years the Brussels-based NGO has grown to 65 people based in eight field sites around the struggling East African nation.
On the southern border with Uganda Nonviolent Peaceforce is working to assist those who flee from the LRA and those who live within striking distance of its forces.
Some of those conscripted into the LRA “have been gone for many years,” says Tiffany Easthom, country director for Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan in a phone interview. “We help them track their families.”
The LRA’s influence seems to be waning in South Sudan, she says.
“They’re very fragmented now,” Ms. Easthom says. “They are a lot smaller and more disbanded than they used to be. Basically, at this point they’re attacking for their own survival. They’re looking for supplies, primarily food. They do some recruiting [but] nothing on the scale it was in the past.”
Attacks on border villages are “fairly predictable,” she says, often tied to crops ripening for harvest. “They’ll attack for food,” she says.
So far none of the Nonviolent Peaceforce workers in South Sudan have been captured or harmed. Its workers constantly build good relationships with community and government leaders, the military, police, and even cattle keepers, who in South Sudan are armed groups themselves.
“Our first rule of operation,” Easthom says, “is that we can’t offer protection to others if we can’t keep ourselves safe…. We work on safety and security every day.”
Nonviolent Peaceforce, whose mission is to foster dialogue among parties in conflict and provide a protective presence for threatened civilians, also works in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
In South Sudan, it is present at a refugee camp just a few miles from the northern border with Sudan.
“There’s been a steady increase in the fighting” along the Sudan border, she says. It looks like there is going to be “an actual armed battle” to control oil fields on the South Sudan side of the border.
“The tensions around that area are really heightening,” Easthom says. “There’s no declaration of war, but there are acts of war….The next six to eight weeks are going to be quite tense” until the rainy season arrives to restrict the movement of heavy equipment, such as tanks, she says.
One of Nonviolent Peaceforce’s roles at the refugee camp has been to help children who’ve come across the border from Sudan unaccompanied by parents. Sometimes this happens when teachers flee Sudan with their students. Other times children become separated from their parents.
It also helps women refugees of all ages learn how to live in the camps – “how do they raise alarms, how do they go get water, how do they go to the marketplace without being vulnerable,” Easthom says. In some cases, it can help them move away from the camp and farther from the border.
The international humanitarian response to the situation in South Sudan has been “very strong,” she says. But the challenges of building a new country in the midst of poverty and conflict, and with a population that is largely uneducated, are daunting. “It’s a little bit like the Stone Age meets the 21st century.”
Even ending the region’s wars will not solve everything.
“The reality is that peace is as complicated as conflict,” she says.