After more than five decades of an underdog guerrilla war and over two million lives lost, the Republic of South Sudan, in nothing short of a miracle, held a peaceful referendum and declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011.
Jubilation filled the world’s youngest country. In its capital, Juba, thousands of citizens filled the streets chanting, singing, leaping, and reveling in their newfound freedom.
Both the United States and the United Nations endorsed the referendum, and, after nearly 99 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence, the Obama administration and the international community held the referendum as an international success.
For voting for independence, the war-racked citizens were promised peace, the foundations of democracy—law and civil liberties—and prosperity.
But only two years after independence civil war broke out yet again. The citizens instead received man-made famines, a handicapped economy, fragile political freedoms and warnings of ethnic genocide, all with little response from the international community and even less from the U.S.
So far, South Sudan’s growing civil war has claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people and threatens millions of lives both inside and outside the country’s borders. The war is drawing closer to the Ugandan border, and the longer the conflict lasts the more likely outside forces may set sights on the young country’s rich resources, expanding the size of the war.
The conflict stems from historic tensions between the more than 60 ethnic groups residing in South Sudan. During the country’s fight for independence, the ethnic groups set aside unresolved differences to pool resources against Sudan.
After independence, tensions flared up again and the groups divided between two different government officials representing the two largest ethnic groups: President Salva Kiir representing the Dinka tribe and Vice President Riek Machar representing the Nuer tribe.
To curb ethnic violence and promote unity, President Kiir appointed the controversial Machar as his vice president. Machar in 1991 led Nuer fighters in a massacre that killed more than 2,000 Dinka civilians in the town of Bor.
Machar began undermining Kiir’s rule in December of 2013 by promising to run against him in the 2015 presidential election. Kiir fired Machar and all hell broke loose. Warfare quickly spread as ethnic groups loyal to both sides armed themselves. In the first week alone 1,000 people were killed and more than 100,000 people were displaced.
To make matters worse, the international community shied away as warfare grew.
The fighting stopped briefly in 2014 when the parties signed a peace deal and President Kiir reinstated Machar, but the fragile deal unsurprisingly failed, and Machar was again fired and fled the country.
There have been multiple peace-deal attempts since 2014, all failing from a lack of follow-up mechanisms to enforce peace mandates.
And South Sudanese have suffered in the meantime.
On Feb. 20, the United Nations declared a famine in four counties of the country, saying that some have already died from hunger and another 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation. The UN reported that 40 percent of the population now depends on international aid, and that an additional one million people could be facing starvation if aid isn’t maintained.
Since 2013, more than 1.5 million people have fled their homes, mainly crossing neighboring Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of the Congo.
International emergency response programs have struggled to keep up with the influx of refugees, putting more pressures on already struggling East African nations.
The UN has not been able to pass sanctions and embargoes against South Sudan that could reduce some of the fighting because international interests are at stake.
Since the civil war erupted, China and Russia have been South Sudan’s top arm suppliers, and they have repeatedly abstained or vetoed such measures.
There is also little evidence the Trump administration has any strategy to confront the war. It was reported that President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, skipped a Council session on South Sudan last week, suggesting she is either not confident or not interested in the issue.
While there is no easy way to quell the conflict, time is against the international community.
As refugees crises and humanitarian aid are politicized by the international community, the South Sudanese suffer. Each day more people are forced from their homes. To confront this, international institutions must act quickly before it’s too late.
Jacob Knutson is a sophomore journalism and political science major from Rapid City, S.D.