For the first time since fleeing his home when civil war broke out in South Sudan five years ago, Raan Bona is daring to plan for the future.
Seated at a restaurant in Bentiu town, the 29-year-old teacher said life had started to change “with peace”.He is opening a printing shop with the hope it will make enough money for him to leave a United Nations site where, like hundreds of thousands of others across the country, he has been sheltering for years.Just months ago, planning ahead in South Sudan seemed impossible.
Now, after warring sides signed a new peace deal in September that the government vows will hold, some are rebuilding their lives.Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war that has killed nearly 400,000 people.Opposition leader Riek Machar noted the grim anniversaries of the past and sounded a note of hope: “This year I can announce to the people of South Sudan that peace is not just on the horizon, but it is here.”Dr Machar pointed to the crowd in October that celebrated the peace deal and greeted his return, said to be one of the capital’s largest gatherings since independence in 2011.Three months into the fragile deal, others said the tide was slowly turning. “If someone had asked me six months ago… I don’t think we would have got here,” the chief of the UN mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, told reporters in Juba on Tuesday.
On a recent visit to Bentiu town, one of many left mostly desolate by fighting, the Associated Press spoke with several locals who pointed to signs of progress. Military checkpoints once used to harass civilians have been removed.Opposition fighters normally confined to the bush have been flowing in and out, visiting families in the UN protected site that shelters more than 114,000 people.And now Bentiu’s opposition governor, who fled amid the fighting in 2014, is expected to return for good.”It’ll show them that there’s peace in South Sudan,” said Angelo Gatwick Galuak, who is coordinating the return celebration scheduled for Thursday.He believes peace will prevail in 2019, pointing to the Christmas party planned in the camp at midnight this year as opposed to past celebrations in mid-afternoon during safer daylight hours.
Some South Sudan observers who have watched previous peace deals collapse remain deeply skeptical though.”There is little evidence that optimism is warranted,” said Payton Knopf, adviser at the US Institute of Peace.There is little sign the dire humanitarian situation is abating and substantial work in implementing this peace deal remains, he said.The five years of fighting crippled the young nation, which saw just two years of peace after winning independence from Sudan.