South Sudan update I

The below is a note I recently shared with a private list. Please DM me if you’d like to be added to this list. Thank you – Sam

Dear Friends and Family,

We leave for South Sudan in just under a month. Yesterday, I spoke with a UN official currently in Juba. He’s been in the country for two months now and had a few insights to share.

First, some context:

Since the most recent flare up in July the insurgent leader and former vice-president Riek Machar has reportedly fled the country. He may now be back in South Sudan, but he is not in Juba, and most likely in Sudan still. Other reports indicate that at least 100 of his soldiers recently dragged themselves into the Congo, in very bad shape.

Just last weekend, 2-4 September, a UN delegation visited Juba and reached a tenuous agreement to send another 4,000 peacekeeping soldiers, aka “blue helmets,” to town. It is interesting to note that this latest regimen is reportedly sourced from neighboring countries.

The theory is that they will be more willing to protect civilians because protecting them in South Sudan contributes to downward pressure on refugees arriving in their own, neighboring countries.

The rub, of course, is that South Sudan leadership was reluctant to receive the troops, and the UN is historically sovereignty sensitive, even to the point of choosing a country’s sovereignty over protecting helpless hundreds. Foreign Policy magazine has presented solid coverage of the ongoing conflict, reporting that one official in Juba noted that 4,000 was the ceiling. They could just as well accept only 10, he said. So we’ll see how many actually arrive, and if they contribute to a more peaceful atmosphere.

Back in Washington, US State Department officials said the former vice-president and insurgent leader, Machar, should not return to Juba during a sworn-in testimony before members of Congress yesterday, 8 September.

This is an interesting, public position to take, and from the perspective of leaders in Juba may signal a shift away from Washington’s support of Machar, which has been a briar patch for US policy in South Sudan. The current president, Salva Kiir, who still wears cowboy hats President George W. Bush gave him, still campaigns locally against the United States because he thinks Washington continues to back his rival. With the latest announcement, his posture may change, but like in most places, I suspect actions are louder than words in Juba.

So my contact in Juba reports that things have been calm. He is not sure about the rest of the country. He and I chatted about the difference between local realities and international perspectives, which I know always present two narratives, often miles apart from each other. South Sudan may be exceptional in that the relatively small amount of real reporting happening there is pretty close to ground truth.

Foreign Policy magazine, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post seem to be the three outlets with the best coverage right now.

The contact confirmed that South Sudan is still very much a conflict zone. He admitted that violence could break out again, especially because Mr. Kiir’s armed men are more loyal to a need to feed themselves than to their chain of command. And he said that many church groups have been vocally opposing human rights atrocities allegedly committed by government soldiers.

Hearing all of that, and more, I couldn’t help but search my own heart for any reason not to go.

I want you to know that I still feel peace with the trip, with whatever role I may fill while there. As I said in my first letter, I still see a path there and back again.

For those of you who are praying, thank you. Please continue to do so. For those of you who are interested in donating to the trip, please see the details at the bottom of my second letter. Thank you.

Finally, I hope to provide another update before we leave on 9 October.

God Bless,
Sam

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