Author: Kerida McDonald, UNICEF Senior Advisor, May 19 2014 - Juba, South Sudan - Last month, traveling on roads punctuated by armed soldiers, I attended a workshop on Conflict Sensitive Programming and Peacebuilding Message Development in Juba coordinated by the UNICEF South Sudan Communication for Development (C4D) and Education Sections, together with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology as well as the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.

South Sudan - the youngest independent nation in the world - recently emerged from decades of conflict only to erupt in an unprecedented outbreak of violence starting in December 2013. Since then, ethnic power struggles and heavy fighting have contributed to the displacement of more than 1.2 million people, including over 900,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and another approximately 300,000 people who are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

Within this precarious context, education is pivotal to mitigate further conflict and promote lasting peace. UNICEF is supporting Communication for Development in peacebuilding as a social process that facilitates dialogue and meaningful conversations to reduce and prevent the risk of conflict or relapse into it.

Developing messages on peacebuilding

To generate themes for peacebuilding messages, workshop participants identified both drivers of conflict and possible "connectors" that might help to motivate people to put aside differences and work together. The group brainstormed on how to apply these elements towards development of a comprehensive Vision for South Sudan. Many children from neighboring schools participated actively in the discussions. One boy’s vision for peace was simple: "just for us to be children." Amongst the adults, stirring debates emerged around marriage and how increases in bride price are fueling cattle raiding and conflict. Other identified conflict drivers included ethnic differences, corruption, nepotism and unequal distribution of social services.

The Vision statement crafted at the workshop captured the passionate aspirations of the participants: "South Sudan will fulfill its destiny, as a strong, peaceful and democratic nation, with transparent and accountable rule of law, embracing nationhood, unity in diversity with tolerance and respect for the voice of all citizens and with balanced enjoyment of national resources, as proud sons and daughters of our land, under the divine guidance of the Almighty."

Bumpy road ahead

But the journey to fulfill this vision will be long and bumpy. Tensions across the country are rising between IDPs and host communities. IDPs are also becoming more aggressive towards humanitarian workers when their needs are not sufficiently met. Moreover, there is a threat of economic collapse with civil servants, including teachers, not being paid since last year, which is leading to school abandonments.

I also learned that frequently South Sudanese youth are being recruited into armed forces; children are abducted while going to collect food rations; families are rattled with fear and loss; and survival is increasingly more challenging with water and food scarcity and risks of disease associated with oncoming rains. The UNICEF country office also experiences vulnerabilities, including staff burnout and inability to deploy local staff to critical areas due to ethnic affiliation and heightened insecurity and ethnic tensions.

Yearning for peace

After the workshop, I left Juba and with my Drop and Run Bag and water for a week ventured out with Anu Puri, Communication for Development (C4D) Specialist, to Mingkaman, one of the six Protection of Civilians (POC) camps established since the conflict crisis in South Sudan to support approximately 100,000 displaced persons from the neighbouring town of Bor in the Lakes state.

Nearing the camp, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Services helicopter hovered overhead, allowing us an aerial view of the sprawling camp with makeshift tarpaulin tents dotted across the landscape and Tukuls here and there showing markers of the host community.

At night, I was exhausted and thankful for my bucket bath from trucked-in water. Many thoughts swirled in my head as I zipped up my sleeping bag within the UNICEF tent. I couldn’t help wondering how long UNICEF and other international partners will have to sustain the massive humanitarian response requiring daily water trucking, food drops and cold chain management to keep the masses of IDPs alive. More challenging, however, will be preventing and erasing emotional and psychological scars of these displaced families.

My thoughts blurred into dreams until I was awoken by wailing women. These sounds were far away, but I could distinctively hear panic and horror. Were they screaming about an accident? attack? abuse? I will never know… but surely this must be one of the countless yearnings for peace in the country.

Click here to access Communication and education for peace in military-controlled South Sudan - Part II.

By Kerida McDonald, UNICEF Senior Advisor, C4D NYHQ

Click here to access the original blog, crossposted from the UNICEF website, originally published May 9 2014. Image credit: © UNICEF 2014 / McDonald