Editor’s Note: At the end of last year, long simmering tensions between ethnic groups in South Sudan’s normally peaceful Western Bahr El Ghazal state ignited following the government’s decision to move the state’s administrative capital from Wau to Bagari, home of the Balanda ethnic group. In December, cycles of retaliatory violence led to deaths in both communities and forced more than 5,000 women and children to seek refuge inside the United Nations’ peacekeepers compound.
Dramatically, at least nine protesters were allegedly shot by South Sudanese soldiers during a demonstration in Wau on December 9. In response, 300 armed Dinka youth allegedly attacked Wau town, shooting at police and burning buildings. On Christmas Eve, South Sudan President Salva Kiir visited the town to address the situation. Since then, the South Sudanese government has cracked down on dissent within the state. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported on January 7 that authorities detained five journalists who were suspected of covering the recent violence in Wau. All the journalists have since been released.
Sarah Cleto Rial, who is a Wau native and program director of My Sister’s Keeper, commented on the recent violence in Western Bahr El Ghazal and the diaspora community’s response in this guest blog post. Sarah’s commentary reflects concerns among the diaspora about the use of force by South Sudanese authorities in Wau.
One of the states of Republic of South Sudan that does not often make it to news is Western Bahr El Ghazal, or WBGS, which is known for its peace, loving people, and peaceful coexistence among the many tribes that inhabit the region. However, in December, things turned violent when men in South Sudan soldier uniforms shot peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight, which was caught on camera and aired on Al Jazeera English Channel.
The protest and violence was in response to the unpopular decision of the state’s governor, Hon. Rizik Zakaria Hassan, to relocate Wau County headquarters to Baggari locality, about 48 km from Wau. The citizens of both Wau and Baggari rejected the decision, and the situation escalated into tribal conflicts between the Dinka and other tribes in WBGS, collectively known as Fertit, which led to the loss of lives and properties.
During the last two weeks of December 2012, many officials, uniformed officers, journalists, and youth and activists were arbitrarily arrested and denied access to their relatives—and this still continues today.
Distressed by the situation, the WBGS diaspora community in North America wrote a strongly worded open letter to South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, urging him to take more decisive actions. The letter states: “We appeal to bring those who committed these crimes to justice and establish rule of law for the rights, freedom, liberty, and protection of civilians. The death of our people has no statute of limitation.”
Among the list of requests, the diaspora community demanded the removal of the WBGS governor from his position; called on the president to cancel the governor’s decision to transfer Wau Country headquarters to Baggari and open dialogue with the people; called for the establishment of an independently-led investigation into the killings of innocent people and to bring the perpetrators to justice; and called for the immediate release of all who were arbitrarily arrested and to cease further arrests.
“We are peace-loving people seeking harmony and stability,” reads the letter. We hope that a genuine search for peace and stability in South Sudan should come by way of Western Bahr El Ghazal.