“Peace is a process.”
Hawa Aganas, a Civil Affairs Officer serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, lets slip an audible sigh and displays a smile which seems both wary and weary as she comments on the proceedings that have taken place in Manyabol over the last couple of days.
Representatives of two feuding foes, the Dinka Bor and the Murle communities in the Greater Jonglei region, are all dressed to their nines. They have just signed an agreement to establish a joint, UN-coordinated committee faced with the daunting task of tackling the age-old vice of stealing children and cows from each other, with a tremendous amount of human lives lost in the process.
Not all processes are equal, however, with some requiring more patience and persistence than others. Attempting to bring inter-communal peace to the region belongs to that category. In fact, hostilities go so far back in time that nobody remains alive to tell the tale and explain how and why they once started.
Over the last six months or so, developments have taken a turn for the worse, with several major attacks having taken place. These cattle raids and child abductions have claimed more human lives than usual. For this reason, requesting the government to conduct civilian disarmament, to collect the guns from the youths of both ethnic communities, is also part of the agreement reached on this day.
Some sixty people, a handful of women amongst them, evenly divided between the Dinka Bor and the Murle communities from different parts of Greater Jonglei, have once again gathered to discuss their differences. The aim is to come up with ways of ending the hostilities.
This time, the scene takes place in the shadow of an immense tree in Manyabol, a Murle area situated more or less halfway between the towns of Bor and Pibor, strongholds for Dinkas and Murles respectively.
Being on home turf, Malak’s Murle counterpart, the Kubal West paramount chief John Gulech Logocho, affirms that he now feels particularly committed to reaching sustainable peace.
“It is the first conference that I have decided to hold, and as one of the founders of this initiative I have to implement what we agree,” John Gulech says.
An oft-repeated, mantra-like affirmation is that the Dinka-Murle hostilities are so deeply ingrained that they have become a self-perpetuating “culture”, or everlasting circle of attacks and revenge attacks, that is near-impossible to break away from.
This sense of resignation and inevitability is still voiced by attendees, even though everyone involved is aware that the seemingly unnecessary human suffering is detrimental to both groups.
Some, like Rebecca Konyi Ibon, leader of the Murle women in Manyabol, are more inclined to assume responsibility for fatal attacks than others.
“We, the elders of both sides, were the ones advising our youth to do these things [the child abductions and cattle raids],” she admits. “But now all of us have come together as one family and agreed that we will create peace awareness. Each one of us elders will talk to our families and communities to make sure that this does not happen again.”
Addressing those in attendance, chief Gulech echoed Ms. Konyi’s admission, but also hinted that political outsiders have been involved in destabilizing relations between Dinkas and Murles.
“It’s because of us [chiefs] that our children have been dying. We chiefs should work hand in hand and stay away from politics,” he said.
Asked why the two groups have found it so difficult to bring themselves together for peace, he responded with a rhetorical question of his own. “Who do you expect to come and bring us, the Murle and our brothers from Bor, together? If you see a government official from the top ranks of the military, they are the ones who incite the youth and release them to fight each other.”
The answer, it seems, was once again the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, more specifically its Civil Affairs Division, specialized in conflict management and resolution. Its staff has been engaged in several previous and sadly unsuccessful attempts to mitigate the perennial conflict.
“We received a request from the two governors [of the Pibor and Bor areas respectively] to bring the communities together to resolve their issues. We met with representatives from the two local governments and asked them where they wanted the participants to come from, and they suggested that people living in conflict hotspots would attend,” says Hawa Aganas, explaining that this represents a new approach.
As a result, residents of at least eight different Dinka and Murle communities have shown up in Manyabol, some of whom have travelled considerable distances.
A milestone in the talks held seems to be the insights that poverty is a root cause of the hostilities, with both sides recognizing that desperation makes people resort to raids and abductions. The prevailing violence, in turn, means that much-needed humanitarian assistance is far less likely to be provided.
“The situation is getting worse and our lives are becoming more difficult, so we have realized that we need peace. There has to peace so that they [humanitarian actors] can come and help people in their areas. When there is peace there is development as all this assistance can arrive,” says Angelina Nyankuer Tong, leader of the women in the Dinka community in Duk Fagak.
Chief Malak Ayuen Mayen praises the current “good leadership”, the governors of the predominantly Murle-inhabited Boma area and the Dinka-dominated land surrounding Bor, for a new way of thinking, with a focus on modernization and education.
“Cattle raiding will make people remain in darkness, children will remain without education and they will follow the same lives of stealing and all of this, so we want to change our communities from being in darkness to the world of modernization. It is our duty and it is our will to implement peace,” he says.
His Murle counterpart Gulech Logocho shares the optimism. A visible sign of Murle goodwill, he says, is that his ethnic group, led by governor David Yau Yau, has tracked down and returned 26 abducted children and 189 heads of cattle to the Dinka Bor community.
Cattle is recognized as the supreme currency and the sign of wealth and status by both sides, with small girls, worth many cows when, or even before, they reach the legal age of marriage, primarily being abducted to be traded for instant, bovine-shaped cash. A marriage-inclined man will need the cattle to pay a hefty dowry, sometimes amounting to hundreds of precious cows, to the family of the bride he has set his eyes on.
Murle and Dinka representatives readily join the dots and acknowledge that this traditional practice directly contributes to the perpetual cycle of inter-communal cattle raiding. However, this awareness, and their belief that increased intermarriage between the two groups can reduce hostilities, is unlikely to lead to the lowering or abolishment of dowries anytime soon.
“It [doing something about the bride payment custom) is very difficult. If your grandfather got married by paying cows, and your father as well, then your daughter cannot get married without cows [being paid by the groom’s family],” Angelina Nyankuer Tong concedes.
On this day, however, peace has come again. At least for now, and to some degree.
“We don’t expect a hundred per cent adherence [to the agreement]. What I have realized is that usually, after discussions between the two communities, there is a period of time when cattle raids and child abductions don’t take place, which gives people some relative peace. That is what we expect,” says Hawa Aganas.
As part of the Manyabol agreement, the UN peacekeeping mission is requested not only to lead the reconciliation process going forward, but also to build “peace centres” in areas where neighbouring Dinka and Murle youth can continue to discuss their differences.