MAF flies planes of peace to ease South Sudanese conflict

Published: 1 Feb 2021

MAF Pilot, Wouter Nagel, in front of plane destined for Jonglei State in South Sudan

As South Sudan’s transitional government establishes its long-awaited justice system to address human rights violations, MAF continues to bring peacemakers together to help create lasting peace. MAF’s Jenny Davies reports…

2020 saw a surge in tribal violence in South Sudan, mostly in Jonglei State in the eastern part of the country. According to the UN, in the first five months of last year, there was a 220% increase in violence compared with the same period two years ago.

Six hundred of the two thousand people killed were from Jonglei State, which has been plagued by conflict for more than a decade. In the town of Pieri, around three hundred people were killed in one incident in May alone.

Last month, MAF flew a team from the ‘Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund’ to the worst affected towns of Pibor, Pieri and Lankien, in a bid to facilitate dialogue between key community leaders.

The Pibor bound flight had an armed guard on board. Flying is by far the safest mode of transport in areas such as this.

The coordinated response across Jonglei State is an attempt to reach leaders during the wet season because once the roads dry out, the perpetrators of violence will become more mobile.

Michael Comerford from the Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund‘Leopard Skin Chief’ could hold key to peace

Michael Comerford from the Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund, explains their ‘roadmap to peace’ initiative:

‘On MAF’s Pibor flight you’ve got the Chief Administrator of Pibor and some government officials. They’re speaking with youths from the Murle tribe who are driving the violence. I’m going to Pieri to meet with the ‘Leopard Skin Chief’ – a spiritual leader from the Nuer tribe. He is central to the peace agreement because he also commissions the violence.

Most of our team are South Sudanese. We have a team in Jonglei State from different tribes - one is Dinka, one is Nuer and one is Murle. These are experienced guys – their recommendations steer us towards the traditional leaders. Other countries might call them “warlords”, but we don’t use that language because they’re likely to be part of the solution.’ 

The importance of peace-building rituals

Michael says there’s no single way to negotiate peace in South Sudan:

‘There are different peacebuilding traditions in every tribe, but no one signs a piece of paper. They celebrate, slaughter an animal, beat the drum, dance and have the women sing.’

Michael highlights the importance of ritual:

‘Among the Nuer, when you slaughter an animal, there’s a particular bone you keep. After seven years, you get together again and break that bone in a ceremony called ‘The breaking of bones’. The Acholi people have ‘The bending of spears’. These rituals signify that the conflict is over. The rituals protect their culture - it’s not about signing a document; it’s about eating and drinking.

The chiefs come and bless, but they also curse, which acts as a threat to those willing to violate what has been agreed. If they break the peace agreement, then they know that they have brought the curse upon themselves.’

'Today they have guns, which makes the conflict very different from 100 years ago.'

Michael Comerford from the Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund

The practicalities of reparation 

For generations, raiding has been used to settle rivalries and acquire cattle wealth needed for marriage, status and prestige. Since guns have replaced spears, death rates have soared, deepening the bitter divide between communities, clans and tribes. Michael explains:

‘Today they have guns, which makes the conflict very different from a hundred years ago. The violence towards women is appalling – it’s got worse since the introduction of guns.

Even those who have committed the worst atrocities will confess what they did. There will be reparation - often in the form of payment of cattle. They’ll sue for unlawful damage or killing and make a payment as part of resolving the issue. It’s recognition of the hurt that was caused. Once that’s paid, they’re expected to move on - the community helps them to move on. It’s a very public process where they will speak about their grief and what they’ve lost.’ 

Progress is slow 

The outcome of the meeting in Pieri is positive and the following week, MAF is asked to fly to two other locations in Jonglei State. Continuing to support the peace talks, MAF flies a government minister, two paramount chiefs and a community leader to meet with a key spiritual leader.

What future peace will look like isn’t clear. The Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund and partners are only focused on the next step. Michael says they have a long road ahead:

‘We’re feeling around in the dark - just finding our way through the cultural geography to try and facilitate peace. It’s really exploratory stuff.’

On 15 January, the Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund (POF) facilitated a three-day youth conference in Rumbek, Lakes State in a bid to promote positive dialogue between the young people of Pibor and Bor in Jonglei State.

POF once again chartered MAF planes to fly key players to this landmark peace conference.