I went to the AU and asked them to save my country; now, I’m waiting

Wednesday May 24 2017

I called upon the new chairman of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat from Chad, to mark out his leadership as different, by acting decisively to bring this dreadful South Sudan war to an end. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG

My country, South Sudan, is gripped by a war that shows no sign of ending, and women and girls are its blameless victims. Sexual abuse and rape have become weapons of war that are wielded without a second thought, and apparently without remorse.

I have seen wounds – physical and psychological – that no human being should have to bear, and heard stories that I carry around inside me, a heavy burden. I have sat for hours in the makeshift camp where the UN tries to keep us safe, counselling survivors and trying to honour their suffering by listening wholeheartedly.

Recently, I took these stories to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital that hosts the African Union. Alongside my delegates, I told the leaders of the AU, and the representatives of Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, what is happening where I am from.

I told them how I lost my husband, fleeing from violence in our village. How I have been separated from my son, who escaped to Khartoum. And how so many more like me have lost or been separated from loved ones by the violence that is tearing our young country apart.

I asked them to do more. I called upon the new chairman of the AU, Moussa Faki Mahamat from Chad, to mark out his leadership as different, by acting decisively to bring this dreadful war to an end. I was grateful for the opportunity to bear witness and I hoped the politicians would listen and act. 

No one and nowhere is safe


Right now, the AU is the only institution that can credibly intervene to end the conflict. Only with its leadership, and with concerted engagement from the very top, will other regional players move to pressure the South Sudanese leaders to stop fighting.

Meanwhile, the people suffer. Attacks by government and opposition soldiers on women and girls are rampant. They rape women from nine- to 60-years-old.

Sometimes they rape boys too. Even in the camps, criminality is rife, and enclosure exacerbates tensions. No one and nowhere is safe.

We are all traumatised. We have become inured to suffering and violence that is not normal, and should never be something that people accept. Life in the camps is close to unbearable, but few of us have any choice.

Ironically, those who can afford it are going to Sudan – to Khartoum and to refugee camps on the border. People would rather return somewhere they were slaves than continue living like this. There’s a settlement of South Sudanese in Khartoum called “Malesh ya Bashir,” or “Bashir, we are sorry for leaving.”

Even the men who commit these vile and violent acts deserve some pity. They have become accustomed to violence, lost all sense of self-worth and purpose.

Fuelled by drugs, and with no faith or hope of redemption, rape has become a habit.

These soldiers are responding to a lawlessness that is inevitable when the people who are supposed to be running the country are causing the problems. When our leaders act like reckless boys, out only for their own gain, and blind drunk with power, what hope is there?

Insufficient incentives to put down guns

The conflict, now in its fourth year, is being perpetuated by vested interests and a failure by those with influence to address the root causes and hold wrongdoers to account.

The government continues to believe it can achieve total victory by military means, while the opposition has fragmented into dozens of armed groups with their own agendas.  There are insufficient incentives for either side to put down their guns. And so the violence continues.  

The fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis. Seven and a half million people are in urgent need of assistance, and the UN has declared a famine, with 100,000 people at risk of starvation.

Fighting forces people from their villages and drives them into swamps, where they can’t grow any food. The farms and plots they leave behind are looted and destroyed by soldiers and militiamen. Government forces block aid routes, engaging in a kind of siege warfare against civilians. By July, half of the population will be suffering from extreme hunger.   

The AU needs to ramp up its engagement and impartially bring together all sides to end the bloodshed. If it fails to do so, thousands more will starve, refugee flows will increase, and there will be more needless suffering.

The AU’s reputation and credibility as a continental leader will be damaged and the very reason for its existence – to maintain peace and security on the continent – called into question.

I do not know if the people I spoke to last week heard my message. I do not know whether they will use the power they have to help my country. I hope so. I hope they act quickly because we the people are dying and suffering.

Mary James lives in a UN Protection of Civilians camp and works with survivors of sexual violence.  This is not her real name.