Seeking shelter from the sweltering sun under the branches of a huge tree, local chiefs pull away from the crowds of people to form a small inner circle, holding hands to signal their commitment to ending six years of intercommunal conflict.
The ceremony to celebrate a new peace agreement, signed by communities from Gok, took place at Mayath in the Rumbek region of South Sudan. The chiefs represent the Pagok, Pagor, Panchinyei and Panawuliol tribes, which have been embroiled in a long running cycle of cattle raiding, child abduction and revenge attacks against each other.
Outside the circle of men, women sing celebratory songs. It is not an uncommon sight in South Sudan for women to be left on the periphery of processes like this rapprochement in Gok despite often suffering most from the conflict.
Amony Wadar Manyier is quick to explain the impact the violence has had on her family.
When our husband or sons die on the battle field, the bodies are brought back to us women. We wash them and dig graves to bury the bodies ourselves because all the men have gone to fight. The pain of burying your husband or son is unbearable. This pain must stop, she said.
She is hopeful that the new peace agreement will bring an end to the cycle of death and destruction.
With this agreement, our children will not die anymore, she said. I had four children. Both my boys died in intercommunal revenge attacks, now I am left with only two girls. I can no longer produce because I have grown old.
For Amony’s 20-year-old daughter Elizabeth Yar Kao, the violence has left her too afraid to leave her home at times. She would rather starve than risk becoming a target.
When the men are at the battle field, we fear being raped by other fighters in revenge, so we stay locked up in our houses. This also means that there will be no cultivation which makes us prone to hunger, she said.
We are also worried about those on the battle field – if they will return wounded or even dead.
A Gender Affairs officer serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) says the intercommunal violence has affected women in different ways.
I have just talked to one woman and she said that when their husbands are on the battle field, there is no time for reproduction and yet, for them as women, they are running out of time to produce children, said Doris Maholo Saydee.
Not only have the women been distant from the actual cause of intercommunal conflict, they have also been largely excluded from the reconciliation process.
With all this suffering, we must find gender-inclusive mechanisms of conflict resolution. The voice of women must also be heard. They must also be at the center of that bigger circle where the real issues are being deliberated, said Doris Maholo Saydee.
UNMISS provided technical support to the reconciliation process and has also promised to help inform all communities about the new peace agreement to ensure it holds.
We will endeavor to popularize the resolutions so that they reach the cattle camps, markets and throughout whole communities so that everyone is aware of them, said Gibril Allan Tourey, an UNMISS Civil Affairs officer. A peace committee has also been established and we are going to train its members in mediation skills.
Other peace partners, including Safer World and Reconcile International, who played a significant role in facilitating the reconciliation are optimistic that the resolutions will hold.
This peace agreement was sealed with traditional ceremonies that are highly respected by the people of this area, said Reverend Peter Tibi from Reconcile International. We believe that, because of this, the communities will hold the resolutions reached in high regard.
His organization has also committed to monitor and follow up on the progress made so that the people of Gok can finally enjoy the peace and prosperity that they long for.
Source: UN Mission in South Sudan