Photos: South Sudanese refugees struggle to overcome ethnic divisions as they pray for peace

Katie G. Nelson
Public Radio International

There’s no shortage of blame to go around in South Sudan’s worsening civil war. For some refugees who have fled into Uganda, ethnic rivalries stoked by the conflict persist. But other South Sudanese are rejecting those divisions and hoping for peace — together.

Thousands of South Sudanese cross the border every day, fleeing worsening violence in their young country, as wanton killings, forced disappearances, torture and reports of ethnic cleansing become hallmarks of the country’s brutal conflict.

With new reports of violence in formerly peaceful regions of South Sudan, and an official declaration of famine that could lead to severe food insecurity for more than 5.5 million by July, it seems the world’s youngest country could be disintegrating into the world’s newest failed state.

The country’s once-bright future descended into chaos beginning in December 2013, as soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir of the Dinka tribe and rebels aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the minority Nuer tribe, fought for control of the young nation and its plentiful oil reserves. Initial massacres by the government-backed Dinka majority were soon matched by revenge attacks committed by rebel fighters supporting Machar, blurring what began as a rivalry between political leaders into a countrywide civil war based loosely on ethnic and political fault lines.

Now, South Sudanese hailing from tribes in Equatoria are facing atrocities, and stories of worsening violence told by refugees now make for a worrying trend.

In November, I traveled to northern Uganda to document the ever-worsening South Sudanese refugee crisis. There, I met dozens of refugees from tribes across Western Equatoria State, one of 10 regions making up South Sudan.

Despite being from different tribes and different areas, they told similar stories. They described mass killings, gang rape and forced displacement — often at the hands of government-backed Dinka soldiers but occasionally by rebel militias or even plainclothes fighters.

Driven out of their homes and displaced in foreign land, many of the refugees are struggling to reconcile with the complexity of war and dislocation. For some, that means blaming opposing tribes for the conflict. Still others refuse to cast blame on rival ethnic groups, believing that peace beyond those divisions remains possible in South Sudan.

More photos  and stories from northern Uganda at Public Radio International