South Sudan remains on the brink of civil war

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The fighting in South Sudan continues, despite ongoing peace talks between the government and rebels. On the ground, though, the future of the world's newest country is still threatened by a conflict that's tinged with ethnic strife.
The BBC's James Copnal is just back from South Sudan's capital, Juba.

James Copnal: Although the fighting broke out there on December the 15th, actually Juba has been relatively calm for several days now, more than a couple of weeks. And the fighting has spread throughout the country; in particular, the rebels have been able to take control of the town of Bor and the town of Bentiu.

Werman: What's the feeling like on the ground there in Juba, compared with, you know, you leave, I imagine, a couple score miles outside the capital and you're into some fairly hairy territory.

Copnal: Yes. Look, I mean, you can still find some pretty terrifying stories in Juba, in particular. In the camps around the UN bases, there are a couple of them in town, where there are more than 20,000 people who've gone to seek refuge, and people telling stories about them and their families being targeted based on their ethnic group, they said, and horrifying stories of people being killed and fleeing bullets to get to the relative safety of the UN compound. But there's no doubt that the situation is much worse elsewhere in the country.

Werman: Now you said, as for those refugees who have flooded into Juba. Some of them told you they were targeted based on what ethnicity they belonged to. Did they describe anything to you that sounded like ethnic cleansing?

Copnal: I think ethnic cleansing is a very strong word, and probably one for the lawyers to decide on. But certainly I think there's ample evidence that people have been targeted based on their ethnicity. And it's a very complicated issue, because South Sudan, this crisis here, is essentially a political crisis that has since taken on, in part, an ethnic dimension. And that's because politicians have ethnic power bases. So Nuer people, which is the same ethnic group as the former vice president now leaving the rebellion, many of them say they were targeted in Juba in the early days of the crisis. And Dinka, which is the ethnic group of the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, they say that they have been targeted elsewhere in the country, by Nuer intent on revenge. So there is an ethnic dimension to this, and the United Nations and human rights groups have called to an end to these ethnic attacks. But it's certainly not the only thing, the only explanation, or even a sufficient explanation, for what's happening in South Sudan.

Werman: I mean, rebels are now using the same guerilla tactics the government once used to gain independence. I mean, is there any hope for a peace process, with all this brutality going on?

Copnal: Well, South Sudan has a very tragic history. So before it became independent in 2011, there were two very long running civil wars with Khartoum, when South Sudan was part of the then United Sudan, and more than two million people died in those two conflicts, it's estimated. But what that history shows is not only the division and the fighting, but also that in the end, peace deals are possible and reconciliation is possible, to an extent, at any rate. So things look pretty bleak right now. That said, there's substantial international pressure on both sides to agree to a cessation of hostilities, at any rate. A halt to the fighting, to allow talks to take place in a more conducive atmosphere. But they will also have to deal with the greater political issues, too, and that could take a lot of time and a lot of energy, and it's gonna require the commitment of both sides to come to an agreement. And that does seem difficult at the moment, because both have quite entrenched positions. And both, I think, will be looking closely to the military balance on the floor, on the field. And as that switches, so, too, does the strength of the relative negotiating positions.

Werman: The BBC's James Copnal, who has just returned from South Sudan. Thank you for your time, James.

Copnal: Thank you.