BOR, South Sudan- The city of Bor, about 120 miles north of South Sudan’s capital Juba, was once a vibrant place with a population of 25,000. This reality changed starkly, however, when violence erupted in South Sudan on December 15, 2013. The current realities on the ground are bleak.
The BBC describes Bor as a “blackened shell, a ghost town,” one that is characterized now by empty, looted, and destroyed houses, burnt vehicles, and entirely deserted streets.
Bor was the first major location that rebel fighters took control of during the conflict, and rebel and government forces aggressively fought each other for control.
However, government troops recaptured Bor on January 18 and have attempted to encourage citizens to return.
South Sudan is the newest country in the world, gaining independence from Sudan in 2011 after a prolonged and bloody conflict.
Post-independence South Sudan continues to struggle with issues of widespread poverty, poor sanitation, high child mortality, and undeveloped infrastructure.
In July 2013, President Salva Kiir fired his deputy Riek Machar, saying that he was planning a coup. Though Machar denies such allegations, ethnic violence broke out in December. Kiir is from the Dinka Tribe, South Sudan’s largest, and Machar is from the Nuers, the second-biggest ethnic group.
Fighting has claimed the lives of thousands of people, and led to the displacement of roughly 500,000 citizens.
As of January 23, government forces and rebels have signed a “cessation of hostilities,” which United States President Barack Obama called a “first critical step toward building a lasting peace.”
Realities in Bor
Now that the two sides have signed a ceasefire, officials recognize how much work needs to be done in Bor.
Lieutenant General Malual Ayom Dor, Bor’s commander, states, “It was a fierce battle here, but an important victory. Now, though, I want the people to return and resume their normal lives.”
When asked if Bor will ever recover from the trauma of this conflict, Dor states he believes people will come back, but those particularly disturbed by the conflict could take a long time to return.
Nhial Majaj Nhial, Bor’s mayor, says the city was once “South Sudan’s dream town. It was the cleanest, safest place in the country. Now it’s brought down to ashes.”
Bor’s streets are still filled with dead bodies, and the BBC describes hospitals as “truly horrific.” During the conflict, rebel fighters attacked hospitals two times and killed patients in their beds.
Meria Jerchaoul, a citizen of Bor, recounts the violence.
“They took my bags and there was some money that fell out. So they shot me through the shoulder. Then they tried to rape me. But I said to them I’m too old to sleep with a man, so if you want to kill me, kill me,” she recalls.
Jerchaoul points to an ethnic component to the conflict, stating, “I could never see the Nuer people again. If I were to hear them come back here, I would die.”
This round of violence is not the first to strike Bor. In 1991, a group of people from the Nuer ethnicity, led by deputy Riek Machar, slaughtered 2,000 people of the Dinka ethnicity. Countless others died of starvation during this time.
Bor was experiencing a comeback before the 2013 conflict. Given this dark history, however, the city could be particularly vulnerable to the memory of conflict, a reality that might understandably hinder its ability to recover from recent events quickly.
Both sides of the conflict accuse the other of committing mass atrocities and war crimes. Reprisals in Bor and other areas have decimated once vibrant communities.
Analysts are unsure of what the future will look like in South Sudan, with peace and reconciliation a long-term goal in a country deeply divided by ethnic conflict.
Nhail, also head of South Sudan’s negotiating team, expressed his concern that since many rebel fighters were ordinary citizens before the conflict, it would be challenging to get them to abide by the cease-fire agreement.
The United Nations, which is protecting 76,000 South Sudanese in eight camps, reports that fighting is still occurring in some parts of the country.
The Enough Project, an American organization working on Central African issues, asserts that the cease-fire marks the start of a long road to real and lasting peace in South Sudan, noting it was “far from guaranteed” that everyone would put down their weapons.
“If an inclusive peace process is not constructed that seeks to address root causes, the conflict will continue, with deadly consequences,” warns John Prendergast, the organization’s co-founder.
– Kaylie Cordingley
Sources: ABC News , BBC , CTV
Photo: The Baltimore Sun