For the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who fled amid the last month’s fighting, Thursday’s ceasefire signing between the government and the rebels may not be the green-light needed to return to their homes just yet.
More than a month after the fighting first broke out, the government of South Sudanese president Silva Kiir and the rebels under the command of former vice president Riek Machar both signed onto a cessation of hostilities after weeks of negotiations in Ethiopia. The U.S. quickly welcomed the agreement as a “critical first step toward building a lasting peace in South Sudan.” For the more than half a million civilians who escaped the clashes, it comes as a ray of hope — but not necessarily enough to return to their homes just yet.
Of the 575,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now within South Sudan, an estimated 12 percent are currently seeking refuge on the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases. When ThinkProgress reached out about the plan for those displaced now that the agreement has been signed, U.N. High Commission for Refugees spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said the body was taking a “wait-and-see approach” for the time being.
Despite the official cease-fire, there are no plans in place to expel the displaced from the bases anytime soon, Lejeune-Kaba said, nor is there an official U.N. plan to relocate them as most of their homes are relatively near the base where they took shelter. “For now it’s about looking at what people want to do,” she continued. “If they feel safe enough to return to their homes, they will. If not, I’ll afraid they’ll be displaced for awhile.”
“It’s too soon [to tell], in other words,” Lejeune-Kaba concluded. That assessment matches what Oxfam Country Director Jose Barahona recently told Inter Press Service. “We don’t expect that the ceasefire means there’s no more shooting the following day,” Barahona said. “There are a lot of people with guns out there. All sorts of different groups armed. I think we cannot be naïve.”
That caution may prove to be wise, given the fragility already being seen in the cease-fire, which went into effect on Friday. Already rebels are claiming that the government is violating the agreement’s terms, according to the Associated Press. “Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the opposition, said Friday that government forces were attacking rebel positions in oil-rich Unity state and in Jonglei state,” the AP writes. “Koang called the attacks a ‘clear violation’ of the peace deal signed in Ethiopia on Thursday. He said rebel forces would defend themselves against attacks.” Meanwhile, the government has said that they are unaware of violence beyond fighting that occurred on Thursday before the cease-fire started, but any new clashes were “because rebels have attacked” government soldiers.
For those that may be remaining on U.N. bases for the foreseeable future, the recent rapprochement between New York and South Sudan may come as another small bit of relief. Kiir lashed out at the mission earlier this week, accusing it of acting as a “parallel government” within his country. “They fell short of naming the chief of the Unmiss as a co-president of the Republic of South Sudan,” Kiir said at the time. “If that is the position of [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon, he should make it clear that he wants the UN to take over South Sudan.” South Sudan’s Ambassador to the U.N. Francis Deng attempted to smooth over those comments on Thursday, calling the U.N. “primarily a source of support for South Sudan” and urging “constructive and productive dialogue” with Turtle Bay to avoid “mistakes and misunderstandings.” At a press conference on Friday, Kiir went further, praising UNMISS and “ordering relevant ministers to make sure UN staff are protected,” according to journalist Andrew Green.
Unfortunately, however, the situation for those who are not lucky enough to be in official camps or on UNMISS bases far outnumber those who are. Almost three quarters of those who have fled the fighting both remain in South Sudan, rather than crossing the border into neighboring countries, and outside of the shelter of camps. So far, the United Nations’ humanitarian efforts have only managed to reach approximately 250,000 of the IDPs within South Sudan.
And once the fighting does finally completely wind down, the situation that the displaced find when they finally do return home will be one that requires careful navigation. Ethnic tensions were stoked high during the weeks of fighting, as the leaders of two sides came from different ethnic groups — Kiir is a member of the Dinka, while Machar is Nuer. While community leaders insisted that the groups be divided while in U.N. camps, it will not be so easy when returning to villages where the two had previously lived side-by-side. And while within the cease-fire’s terms is a condition for both sides to “assist displaced persons and refugees who with to return to their original areas of abode,” what happens once they get there is left for the future.