A South Sudan army soldier, in Malakal, on Monday, after government forces re-captured the city.

A South Sudan army soldier patrols in Malakal on Monday, after government forces re-captured the city.


James Akena/Reuters

The three-week-old civil war in South Sudan appears to be intensifying, even as envoys from both sides prepare for peace talks.

President Salva Kiir on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in two states, Jonglei and Unity, as fighting spreads across the new nation. On Tuesday, forces loyal to his opponent, Riek Machar, stormed into Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. Machar was ousted as vice-president in July then took up arms on December 16. Bor holds enormous significance for South Sudanese.

"It's the place where, back in the 90s, forces loyal to Riek Machar actually massacred about 2,000 people," says Heidi Voght of the Wall Street Journal, who just got back from South Sudan. "So it has a lot of emotional significance for the country."

Taking possession of Bor also makes it look like Machar "has quite a lot of power right now."

The political squabble between Kiir and Machar has taken on an ethnic aspect. There are numerous ethnic groups in South Sudan, but the biggest are the Nuer and the Dinka. Machar is a Nuer while Kiir is a Dinka. There have been indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians by both sides, based solely on identity. Tens of thousands of people have now taken to the bush to avoid the violence. Others have sought shelter in camps under the protection of the United Nations.  The UN is reinforcing its military presence, in the country but only to ensure the safety of the displaced people.It's not planning to intervene in the struggle directly. 

Hopes for peace are pinned on a political solution. Representatives of both sides are now in Addis Ababa, in neighboring Ethiopia.

"Obviously everyone is hoping that a ceasefire is declared soon," Vogt says. "But it feels like a very intractable situation between these two men at this point, because both of them want to be president of South Sudan and ... it's hard to see how they're going to reconcile that."

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