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South Sudan’s civil war has raged for 5 years. Now the leaders of the two sides are meeting.

Their last attempt to make peace ended in disaster. Now Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are trying again.

A billboard in Juba featuring South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (left) and rebel leader Riek Machar (right) on April 14, 2016 — the last time the two men met to try to end the country’s civil war. That meeting ended in a resumption of violence.
A billboard in Juba featuring South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (left) and rebel leader Riek Machar (right) on April 14, 2016 — the last time the two men met to try to end the country’s civil war. That meeting ended in a resumption of violence.
Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

More than 50,000 people dead. More than 4 million displaced. A quarter of a million children severely malnourished and at imminent risk of death.

That’s what five years of horrific civil war have done to South Sudan, a country that is only seven years old. Now, the men at the center of the carnage are about to meet face to face for the first time in two years to try to broker a peace deal.

South Sudan’s civil war broke out in late 2013 when troops loyal to then-Vice President Riek Machar clashed with forces loyal to President Salva Kiir.

The conflict quickly escalated. Because the two men represented rival ethnic groups with longstanding tensions and a history of violence, the political fight quickly morphed into an all-out ethnic conflict, with people loyal to both sides taking up arms and slaughtering each other. More than 1,000 people were killed and another 100,000 were displaced in the first week of fighting alone.

Since that time, both sides have committed atrocities. In late November 2016, United Nations experts took a 10-day trip to the country. What they found was horrendous: widespread ethnic cleansing, burning villages, looming starvation, and gang rape “so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal.’”

On Wednesday, Kiir and Machar are meeting in neighboring Ethiopia to try to work out some sort of deal to end the violence. It’s a meeting filled with possibility — and peril.

Previous attempts to make peace have failed. And the last time Kiir and Machar met, back in 2016, it ended in disaster: The shaky peace deal the two sides had worked out collapsed, fighting resumed, and Machar had to flee the country.

Here’s the backstory of how the war started — and why Wednesday’s meeting between the two leaders is so fraught with danger.

An old style of war comes to the world’s newest country

Bloodshed is nothing new for South Sudan, which didn’t gain its independence from the North until 2011. For 22 years, a brutal civil war raged in Sudan between the government in the predominantly Muslim, Arabic-speaking North and rebels from the South, where people are mostly Christian or follow more traditional religions.

Finally, in 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement was reached between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The agreement was facilitated in part by a group of African nations known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, and Italy.

As Rebecca Hamilton writes in the Atlantic, the United States was particularly active in the peace process, thanks in part to the efforts of a small bipartisan coalition of members of Congress — known as the “Sudan Caucus” — who worked for decades to make Sudan a US foreign policy priority.

Christian groups in the US had also long championed the cause of the South Sudanese, framing their struggle against the Muslim government in the North as a fundamental struggle against the Muslim oppression of Christians. When George W. Bush, himself an evangelical Christian, came into the White House in 2001, he made Sudan a top policy priority — and it was during his second term that the peace agreement was finally signed.

The 2005 agreement laid out a timetable for a referendum on whether Sudan should be split in two, with South Sudan becoming a separate country. That vote was held in January 2011 and passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 99 percent of South Sudanese voting in favor of independence. On July 9 of that year, the Republic of South Sudan formally came into existence.

Political leaders around the world hailed it as a triumph for peace. Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), the co-founder of the Sudan Caucus, said it was “a victory for the oppressed.” Then-US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called it “a day of triumph for all who cherish the rights of all people to govern themselves in liberty and law.” And although President Obama was the one in the White House on that historic day, one South Sudanese man at the celebration in the capital, Juba, held up a sign that said “Thank You George Bush.”

And then everything fell apart.

That’s because during the final push for independence, many of the tensions among the more than 60 different ethnic groups in South Sudan — and particularly the two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer — were set aside without being resolved. People in the South more or less agreed to overlook or ignore or downplay these lesser conflicts to achieve what was seen as a far more important goal: independence from the North.

But, of course, those underlying ethnic tensions never actually went away. And once the bigger fight for independence was essentially over and it came time to actually get down to the business of building a brand new country, they came bubbling right back up.

“This liberation curse took hold where people felt entitled to power,” explained Hilde Johnson, the former head of the United Nations mission in South Sudan, at a recent event at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “It was their turn to eat.”

Meet the men at the center of the carnage

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (right) and rebel leader Riek Machar sit for an official photo in Juba on April 29, 2016. Shortly after, their shaky peace agreement collapsed and the bloody civil war resumed.
Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

In his speech marking South Sudan’s official independence on July 9, 2011, Salva Kiir, the country’s new president, proclaimed, “May this day mark a new beginning of tolerance, unity, and love for one another. Let our cultural and ethnic diversity be a source of pride and strength, not parochialism and conflict. … We are all South Sudanese. We may be Zande, Kakwa, Nuer, Toposa, Dinka, Lotuko, Anyuak, Bari and Shiluk, but remember you are South Sudanese first!”

And it seemed, at least at first, that Kiir really was committed to preventing ethnic tensions from splitting apart the fledgling country. Kiir, a cowboy hat-wearing member of the ethnic Dinka tribe, appointed Riek Machar to be his vice president. Machar was an ethnic Nuer, the second-largest ethnic group in the country. He had also actually led a brutal massacre in 1991 in which Nuer fighters slaughtered some 2,000 Dinka civilians in the town of Bor.

By appointing Machar to the second-highest political office in the country, Kiir was essentially trying to build a unity government in which the two rival ethnic groups shared power.

But it didn’t last.

In early 2013, Machar began vocally criticizing Kiir’s leadership of the country and his handling of the economy, and announced his intention to challenge Kiir for the presidency in 2015. Kiir, not surprisingly, didn’t particularly appreciate that, and responded in July by firing Machar — as well as all 28 of Kiir’s cabinet ministers and their deputies, leaving government ministries in the hands of civil servants. Things remained relatively quiet for the rest of the year.

Then in December 2013, all hell broke loose. Forces loyal to Machar clashed with forces loyal to Kiir. What actually happened is still in dispute: Kiir publicly accused Machar of having attempted a coup, but others say the violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir’s majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar.

Regardless of what really happened, the conflict soon escalated dramatically. Because the two men represented rival ethnic groups with longstanding tensions and a history of violence, the political fight quickly morphed into an all-out ethnic conflict, with people loyal to both sides taking up arms and slaughtering each other. More than 1,000 people were killed and another 100,000 were displaced in the first week of fighting alone. Machar fled the capital city of Juba, and the Nuer elements of the army broke away and fled with him.

In August 2015, after tens of thousands had been killed and more than 1.6 million people had been displaced, a shaky peace agreement was reached between the two warring ethnic groups, once again facilitated by the IGAD, the organization of African countries that includes South Sudan and most of its neighbors. As part of the agreement, Riek Machar was to return to Juba to resume his post as the country’s vice president.

That didn’t play out as planned.

Princeton Lyman, the former US special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, told me in an interview at the time that Machar was so afraid for his life that he insisted on bringing a big contingent of his own fighters back to the capital with him. That, perhaps not surprisingly, turned out to be a recipe for disaster. In 2016, the two rival forces clashed once again in Juba, and Machar once again fled the city — as well as the country.

Machar has been living in exile in South Africa under house arrest ever since.

Now the people of South Sudan (and many others around the world) are holding their breath hoping that Wednesday’s meeting between Kiir and Machar in Ethiopia goes better than their last one did — and leads to a lasting agreement for peace that puts an end to years of disastrous civil war.