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To the leaders of South Sudan: Look into your hearts
As I dodge a swarm of mosquitoes in the shower at the Malakal UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site, I realise how deeply angry I am about the situation in South Sudan.
I angrily swat at the mosquitoes, taking my anger out on those that bite me in the shower and through my jeans, t-shirt, on top of my head at night. I'm angry because yesterday I visited Wau Shilluk, a small village an hour's boat ride from the state capital of Malakal but my anger is nothing compared to how the women there feel.
Since December, the population of this village has doubled with the influx of displaced people seeking some form of safety from the horrors of the conflict. The women of Wau Shilluk asked me to carry a message to the leaders of the government and opposition in South Sudan: "Come to Wau Shilluk and explain yourselves."
Explain why the promises of independence three years ago have instead become civil war. Explain why the health clinic isn't providing adequate services for women such as midwives, antenatal care, nutritional feeding.
And, most awfully: "Explain why soldiers are raping women and killing them if they resist."
Women need to be brought in to the peace process
The women of Wau Shilluk just want their voice to be heard in the peace process; they think that if South Sudan's leaders' meeting at the negotiation table hear them and take the time to sit down and work through their differences, there's a chance the conflict could end.
The women I met a day earlier in Malakal were just as clear about what they want. They've been living in the UN's PoC site now for many months and desperately want to leave. And who wouldn't? The mud, the unsanitary conditions, the lack of privacy and the criminality have become a daily part of their lives.
They just want to go home. But they can't, because it's too unsafe. They want the UN to do more to stop the criminality, to improve living conditions. They want the war to end.
No-one trusts anyone
The women tell me that the targeted killing of people, not for cattle or for wealth or material goods, but because they are their 'enemies' has undermined their confidence in the army. They no longer trust anyone with a gun or, indeed, anyone who purports to be a leader.
The women in Wau Shilluk and those in the PoC in Malakal are consistent in their call for genuine leadership in bringing peace and re-establishing law and order. Rachel, a strongly-spoken woman who lost her husband in the conflict and who recently participated in a CARE-run gender-based violence awareness programme, said that peace and law and order are the most important things to her.
"The leaders have to look into their hearts and ask for forgiveness for the things they've done and then make peace with each other and the people," Rachel says. "It is up to the leaders to make it happen."
But the tone of her voice tells me that she's clearly very cynical about it actually happening.
Reconciliation may take years to achieve
Sadly, many South Sudanese don't think the conflict will end soon. While the women suffer and push to be heard to stop the onslaught of violence against them and their children, their leaders sit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at a cost of about $500,000 per month, accomplishing very little.
Even if they do agree, the myriad of armed groups in the country have to agree too. The amount of violence, killing and suffering that the people of South Sudan have been through means that reconciliation, necessary to re-establish trust in the leaders, may take years to achieve.
Before this conflict started in December, there was no inspiring and unifying vision of what South Sudan could be. The hope and optimism that came with independence is gone. Instead, there is now fear, mistrust and disillusionment between the people of South Sudan. An amazing opportunity has been squandered. It may take years to re-build a sense of unity.
The women I've spoken to are so passionate and so furious that I am now also. I will take their messages back to the capital, to the governments in the region, to the governments that support South Sudan financially and advocate for and alongside these women in the hope that they may achieve the peace they deserve.
This article was first published in The Huffington Post 09/09/2014
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