South Sudan security concerns remain high as peace process takes a step forward

Pope Francis greets South Sudanese president Salva Kiir at the Vatican April 11 2019 Credit Vatican Media Pope Francis greets South Sudanese president Salva Kiir at the Vatican, April 11, 2019. | Vatican Media.

After a newly formed unity government for South Sudan was sworn in last week, security concerns in the world's newest country remain high, posing challenges for Pope Francis' desired papal trip.

"Even with the national-level conflict right now under a ceasefire, there's a lot of violence around the country," a senior State Department official stationed in Juba said Feb. 26.

"It's still a dangerous place, but it's better than it had been during the open conflict," he said.

South Sudan remains among the 14 countries on the US State Department's Do Not Travel Level 4 advisory due to violent crime – including shootings, ambushes, assaults, robberies and kidnappings. The country continues to be one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian aid workers during the fragile peace process.

A UN report published Feb. 20 documented widespread and pervasive sexual violence, a remaining problem in South Sudan following conflict-related sexual violence during the civil war.

Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to visit South Sudan, along with Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Chalmers, the former moderator of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. A prior trip to the war torn country with Welby was cancelled in 2017 due to security concerns.

On. Feb 22, former rebel leader Riek Machar was sworn in as South Sudan's vice president, along with three other lower ranking vice-presidents, to lead alongside President Salva Kiir in the formation of a coalition government under the peace plan.

"We appreciate the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for his prayers and his request for peace for South Sudan. With this important ceremony today, we certainly listened to him and we are proud to be able to announce that we have reconciled," Kiir said Feb. 22.

The president also thanked the Catholic community of Sant'Egidio for bringing opposition leadership to Rome in January for dialogue to further the peace process.

A photo of Pope Francis kissing the feet of Kiir and Machar at the Vatican last year was presented at the ceremony for the formation of the unity government.

It was the third time opposition leader Machar was sworn in as South Sudan's vice president in South Sudan's short history as a country.

Bishops in South Sudan are now calling on this new coalition government to maintain peace.

"The priority should be to maintain peace and not to seek positions of power out of greed for material gain. The government needs to look towards the needs of the people who are fed up with war," Bishop Erkolano Lodu Tombe of Yei told ACI Africa Feb. 26.

The State Department official in Juba commented, "Everyone's looking to see: Will this new unity government work? Will it remain an inclusive and unified government?"

People in South Sudan continue to face serious humanitarian concerns, exacerbated by government corruption, locust swarms, and floods in October that destroyed crops and livestock.

The report by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated "deliberate starvation" and corruption have been a "hallmarks" of the South Sudan conflict. It found that 55% of the population face acute food insecurity "due to the deliberate policy of preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians by different parties to the conflict."

"Deliberate starvation is clearly occurring along ethnic and political lines, in an effort to marginalize dissident communities as well as those too disenfranchised to challenge the status quo because their day-to-day lives revolve around basic survival," Commissioner Andrew Clapham said.

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South Sudan's five-year civil war began shortly after the South Sudan gained independence in 2011 with fighting primarily between forces loyal to Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar.

The war killed hundreds of thousands of people and left 2.1 million people internally displaced, with another 2.5 refugees, according to the United Nations.

"Everybody, even children are crying for peace. We are fed up with war and now all we want is peace. Please don't return us to war," Bishop Tombe said Feb. 26.

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