The risks are great, stakes high, soldiers on edge, as S. Sudan readies for rebel chief Machar's return to Juba

The country is close to collapse. "Unless the violent kleptocratic system...is addressed...no government will be able to end the war and atrocities"

ON a dusty patch of earth cut into thick bush on the outskirts of South Sudan’s capital, hundreds of rebel soldiers who took part in a more than two-year civil war have set up a new base.

The camp is basic: a few blue tents in the baking heat, piles of cut grass to build thatch hut shelters, pit latrines and a few leaky water taps. Here lies the best hope yet to end a brutal civil war that saw the world’s youngest nation spiral into catastrophe and pushed to the brink of famine, with tens of thousands killed, over two million forced to flee their homes, and multiple ceasefires shattered. 

The camp, one of three in Juba, has no visible defensive positions or walls—and the rebels are edgy with all sides still heavily armed. Rebel general John Mabieh Garr points towards a nearby government army base. “(It) would be better if they stay distant from us, until we know the reality of the peace agreement,” he mutters. The risks are great and the stakes high.

“Significant step”

The 1,370-strong armed rebel force completed their arrival into Juba last week as part of a long-delayed August 2015 peace deal, a prelude to rebel chief Riek Machar’s expected return on April 18. 

Machar, who fled during the massacres that erupted in December 2013 when war broke out in Juba, is set to take up the post of vice-president—the same job he was sacked from months before conflict erupted—and form a unity government with arch-rival President Salva Kiir.

“When Machar returns, it will allow the formation of the transitional government, the most significant step in the implementation of the peace agreement,” said Casie Copeland from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank. 

While Machar’s arrival will be a major symbolic step forward, many warn that practical implementation of the peace deal will be a long and tough task. There are other rebel forces still fighting who are not included in the peace agreement. 

“Machar’s arrival to Juba will mean the peace agreement is now on the right path,” said civil society leader Edmund Yakani, directer of South Sudan’s Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO). “But it does not mean the country is free from violence.” 

No panacea 

The conflict now involves multiple militia forces driven by local agendas or revenge, who pay little heed to paper peace deals.

“There are many questions as to the feasibility of the arrangement,” said David Deng from the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS). 

Even the usually upbeat Festus Mogae, a former Botswanan president heading the international ceasefire monitoring team, has warned that the “formation of a new government will not in itself be a panacea.” 

ICG’s Copeland warned Machar’s arrival would be only one step in a “messy peace”, but that crucially it is backed by regional nations, putting pressure on the leaders to make the deal work. 

Tensions remain deep, with the rebels accusing the army of boosting troops in the capital, which should be officially demilitarised within a 25 kilometre (15 mile) radius apart from units allowed under an August 2015 peace deal. The army denies the claims. 

 “Violent kleptocratic system”

Both Kiir and Machar are former rebel leaders who rose to power during Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war between north and south—a war in which the men also fought each other—before South Sudan won freedom in 2011. 

They come from the south’s two main ethnic groups—Kiir from the Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer—communities that are themselves split into multiple, and sometimes rival, clans. 

Civil war broke out in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that have split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines. 

Today the country is close to collapse with soaring inflation, oil production cut due to war and the income earned from it a fraction amid a slump in global prices. 

“Unless the violent kleptocratic system that underlies the war and mass corruption is addressed, no temporary unity government will be able to end the war and associated atrocities,” said John Prendergast from the Enough Project campaign group. “This conflict was in many ways driven by competition over the spoils of state control. Unless there are serious consequences for mass corruption and atrocities, the deadly status quo is likely to continue.” 

Juba saw some of the worst atrocities in the first weeks of war, but since then has been largely calm. With armed factions now inside the city, people are nervous. “People are clearly worried,” said Deng. “But people are also hungry for peace, and this agreement is, in reality, the only path towards that…so people are willing to accept the risk in the hope it will pay off.”

Here are key events in the war.

- 2013 -

December 15: Heavy gunfire erupts in Juba, where tensions have risen since July when Machar was fired as vice-president. 

 President Salva Kiir

Kiir blames Machar for an attempted coup, but Machar denies this and accuses the president of purging his rivals. Fighting spreads and rebels seize key towns.

- 2014 -

January 10-20: Uganda sends troops to back Kiir. Government troops recapture the northern city of Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity State, and Bor, capital of the eastern state of Jonglei.

April 15-17: More than 350 civilians are massacred in Bentiu and Bor, according to the UN.

May 2: US Secretary of State John Kerry warns of the risk of “genocide” as he visits Juba.

August 26: A UN helicopter is shot down, with three onboard killed. Each side blames the other. Over 50 aid workers have been killed in the war.

- 2015 -

February 1: Kiir and Machar sign a new agreement to end the fighting, the latest in a series of deals, and like the others, it is rapidly broken within days.

June 30: South Sudan’s army raped then torched girls alive inside their homes, a UN rights report says, warning of “widespread human rights abuses”. Rebels have also been accused of similar atrocities.

July 2: UN and US sanctions placed on six leaders from both sides.

August 17: Machar signs a peace deal in Addis Ababa.

August 26: Kiir signs the peace accord, but issues a list of “serious reservations”. Fighting continues.

October 3: Kiir nearly triples the number of regional states, undermining a key power-sharing clause of the peace agreement.

October 28: African Union investigators list atrocities committed, which include forced cannibalism and dismemberment.

November 5: UN experts warn that killings, rapes, and abductions continue and that both sides are stockpiling weapons. Over two dozen armed groups are involved in fighting characterised by shifting alliances, opportunism and historic grievances.

November 27: Some 16,000 children have been forced to fight, amid a growing humanitarian crisis, the UN says. More than 2.8 million people, almost a quarter of the population, needs emergency food aid.

- 2016 -

February 8: UN agencies warn at least 40,000 people are being starved to death in war zone areas on the brink of famine, with rival forces blocking aid.

February 12: Kiir reappoints Machar as vice president.

April 11: A 1,370-strong rebel force completes their arrival into Juba ahead Machar’s expected return on April 18.

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