Conflict & Justice

South Sudan remains on the brink of civil war

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Credit: James Akena/Reuters

A South Sudan army soldier stands next to a machine gun mounted on a truck in Malakal town, 308 miles northeast of the capital of Juba. Troops clashed with ethnic Nuer militia and other factions loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.

What started as a political dispute has brought South Sudan to the brink of civil war. 

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

President Salva Kiir is pitted against his former vice president, Riek Machar. The dispute has turned deadly. South Sudan has seen three weeks of violence bordering on ethnic war. Tribe versus tribe. It's not good. 

But the BBC's James Copnal cautions against using the term "ethnic cleansing." He says that's one for the lawyers to decide later.

"This crisis is essentially a political crisis that has since taken on, in part, an ethnic dimension," he says. "And that's because the politicians have ethnic power bases."

The Nuer people support Machar. The Dinka people support Kiir.

Copnal just returned from Juba, the city where fighting started. He says it's relatively calm now, but you still hear pretty terrifying stories. Camps have been set up around United Nations bases, with roughly 20,000 people seeking refuge from the fighting.

With all the brutality going on, it's hard to think that peace might be possible. But it is, says Copnal, who points out that before South Sudan became independent in 2011, there were two long-running civil wars.

"More than 2 million people died in those conflicts," he says. "But what that history shows is not only the division and the fighting, but also that, in the end, peace deals are possible."

International powers are calling on South Sudan to end the fighting immediately. But it will take both sides to reach any agreement and Copnal says both have entrenched positions.

"And both will be looking toward the military balance on the field," he says. "And as that switches, so, too, does the strength of the relative negotiating positions."

And until the sides reach a deal, he expects the fighting will continue.

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