JUBA – A ceasefire between South Sudan’s government and rebels was due to come into effect Saturday following a deal to end a brutal five-month war that has pushed the country to the brink of genocide and famine.
President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice president, met in the Ethiopian capital on Friday, shook hands and prayed together, and agreed to order a halt to fighting within 24 hours. Army and aid sources said frontlines appeared to be quiet.
The deal came as the United Nations food agency said there was only a “small window of opportunity” to avert famine, and appealed for relief agencies — who have been subjected to armed attacks and looting — to be allowed unfettered access.
In their deal, the rivals “agreed that a transition government offers the best chance to the people of South Sudan” with the promise of fresh elections for the world’s youngest nation, said Seyoum Mesfin, head mediator with the East African regional bloc IGAD.
Both sides also “agreed to open humanitarian corridors… and to cooperate with the UN” to ensure aid is delivered, he added.
Military officials from both sides said frontlines appeared to be quiet ahead of the deadline to implement the truce. A ceasefire had been agreed to in January but quickly fell apart.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP that the truce appeared to already be in place, information that was echoed by several independent aid sources.
“As far as the information I have there are not any skirmishes today. The rebels are under Riek Machar and it was Riek Machar who declared war against the government,” he said, adding however that he feared “other forces not under the control of Riek Machar”.
- Need for ‘mammoth aid effort’ -
The peace deal, which followed intense lobbying from world leaders and Washington slapping sanctions on senior military commanders, came amid new reports of war crimes committed by both sides and fears that a wave of ethnic killings could result in genocide.
The war has claimed thousands — and possibly tens of thousands — of lives, with more than 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes and South Sudan said to be on the brink of Africa’s worst famine since the 1980s.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in South Sudan earlier this month to push for peace, said the “agreement to immediately stop the fighting in South Sudan and to negotiate a transitional government could mark a breakthrough”.
“The hard journey on a long road begins now and the work must continue,” Kerry said in a statement, urging “both leaders to take immediate action now to ensure that this agreement is implemented in full and that armed groups on both sides adhere to its terms”.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also visited the country last week, welcomed the deal and appealed to Kiir and Machar to “immediately translate these commitments into action on the ground, in particular the cessation of all hostilities”.
British aid agency Oxfam, one of a handful of aid agencies working in the worst-affected areas of the country, said the deal was a “timely breakthrough after months of dashed hopes”.
“Civilians caught up in this bloody conflict need to have full confidence that they can return to their homes without fear of violence,” said Cecilia Millan, head of Oxfam in South Sudan.
“They need to get back to their fields to plant their crops as soon as possible or they will lose the chance of feeding their families in the coming months,” she added, saying the country still needed a “mammoth aid effort”.
- Gruesome violence -
The World Food Programme (WFP) said “a hunger catastrophe can still be avoided, but humanitarian agencies must be allowed to reach tens of thousands of people in need before it’s too late”.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay, a former head of the UN genocide court for Rwanda, said she recognised “many of the precursors of genocide” listed in a UN report on atrocities that was released during the week.
These included hate radio urging rape and “attacks on civilians in hospitals, churches and mosques, even attacks on people sheltering in UN compounds — all on the basis of the victims’ ethnicity”.
Testimonies in a report this week by Amnesty International describe civilians including children executed by the side of the road “like sheep” and other victims “grotesquely mutilated” with their lips sliced off.
The conflict, which started as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, has seen the army and communities divide along ethnic lines, pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer.
The war broke out on December 15 with Kiir accusing Machar of attempting a coup. Machar then fled to the bush to launch a rebellion, insisting that the president had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.
Observers believe implementing the truce will be tough for both sides.
“Of course this is a very difficult issue. Some of the field commanders tend to be behaving in their own way without any instructions from above. So we can still expect some rocky roads ahead,” said Simon Monoja Lubang, a lecturer at the University of Juba.