Sunday, 14 December 2014

One year on - the conflict in December, 2013

If a big earthquake occurred today, and 4.5 million people in Melbourne suddenly found themselves without access to transport, shelter, food or water, who would know where to go or where to seek help?

With nowhere to charge phones or access the internet, how would people find their friends and family?

This is the situation many people in post-conflict countries experience.

One year on, I wanted to share my experience in South Sudan as it once again descended into conflict.

Like an earthquake, the violence caught many people in South Sudan off guard and the gunfire quickly grew into conflicts across South Sudan, leaving over 2 million people displaced.

David and I were both there in the capital of South Sudan, Juba on that very day when it happened - twelve months ago today on 15th December, 2013. We were there to continue working on the Children's Centre project as well as conducting some research for micro-enterprise idea.

Early in the morning the gunfire from the barracks upset neighbours, killed a number of civilians and by 6am, and the military in the barracks started to fight with each other.

In a post-conflict country like South Sudan once again descending into a state of conflict, people immediately started to bring their own agenda on the table. What started the conflict? Was it tribal? Was it food deprivation? Was it oil? Was it a cattle raid? Or was it just a result of polygamy, women fighting over husband's attention?

We don't know.

What we do know though, at least from the media, is that it was pre-planned - however, as civilians, we didn't know anything until we heard the gunfire. Even then, who could be prepared for one incident of gunfire turning South Sudan once again into a country in conflict, on the brink of war?

Conflicts upset humans. Conflicts cause uncertainty and make people do things they wouldn't do in peace. We cannot just frame these in a box to say people are so violent just because they grow up in war.

Four days before the conflict, on 11th December, 2013, I had a very peaceful chat over great lunch with my South Sudanese friends who welcomed me as if I grew up there.  "Welcome home," as Archangelo says - I was really touched by the warmth.

On the next day, as we were looking for a car to rent to drive to our destination of Turalei in Warrap State, we went to River Nile. It appeared to me to be a peaceful river. David and his cousin Bol told me a horrific story of when they had to swim across this river, braving its speedy current, back in the 1990s when they were fleeing the war from Sudan to Ethiopia. Vivid memory over Ethiopian coffee.

And of course, as a Japanese, I was happy to find my home here in a local supermarket....

Having met a few Japanese people here, I was glad to learn about 400 Japanese people working in this wonderland South Sudan.

As we found a car to drive to Turalei on the 14th, we stayed another night in Juba. Thanks to David's network, our accommodation was provided by the wife of the Former Vice President, Dr Riak Machar.

On the 15th December, I woke up to an SMS from my friend, warning me to stay inside no matter what. I went down to ask David what happened. We stayed quiet and kept listening to the radio the whole day.

We heard gun shots here and there - something that shouldn't happen was happening.

David and the accommodattion's security guard started to do something with the number plate of a car.

They were removing the number plate. We were in the Central Equatria State, where the majority of Dinka live.

The car's number plate was from SSUS - "South Sudan Unity State" - indicating that this car belongs to those of Nuer - as majority of Nuer live in Unity State.

Aware that the growing conflict could cause divisions along tribal lines, David wisely thought that the car with this number plate would mean that people in this accommodation, including us, would be questioned with guns when the army comes and we would be in danger.

Long story short - I moved to a hotel nearby. The Japanese government arranged a charter flight five days later.

I had to leave. Unlike the two million displaced South Sudanese people, I was lucky to have a safe place to go back to. I wanted to stay, but there was literally nothing I could do, and if I stayed back, I would have been a burden. The current conflict was something beyond the capacity of Peace Palette.

Mission unaccomplished, I saw the reality of what peace building means, and perhaps the scale and depth of it.

Peace Palette was co-founded by David and myself in the hope that we could bring peace and sustain stronger, resilient, and harmonious communities across the world. Starting our work in South Sudan, after conducting a needs assessment we have built a children's centre and community garden thanks to many organisations and individuals' support, enabling better access to education and food sufficiency.

What we have been doing is one stepping stone to building peace.
Peace is secondary when basic needs are not met. When you don't have bread for tomorrow, you have something else to worry about other than peace. Why talk about peace when we don't even have clothes and food to celebrate New Year?

That's why Peace Palette is trying to re-build a new children's centre in a new location that will not be affected by seasonal floods so that we can make sure children in the centre have a refuge, and can eventually "graduate" to contribute back to the society.

A family reunification program is in our vision for next year, to make sure that children are not institutionalised in the centre, as we believe children should grow in a family environment. To do this, we are going to support women in the community to start micro-enterprise, as women with stable income can look after children in a family environment.

Our vision for Nhomlau Children's Centre is that it will provide a half-way home or, multi-purpose centre for children to have health checks and to attend temporary education classes. We will then make referrals to local schools. We also envision providing computer classes, a playground, and other things that will engage people in the community to come together.

We also are going to build a community garden for better food sufficiency and income generation.

Peace Palette takes an asset-based approach - we work with people on the ground using their existing skills to best resolve their challenges. We believe that's when people have true ownership of what they do, and are able to believe in their own ability to promote and build peace within their communities.  

We hope you will continue to be part of our journey next year.

Best Wishes,
Aya Ono, Peace Palette Co-Founder

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