Peace prayers as South Sudan awaits rebel chief’s return

South Sudan's former Vice President and South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar talking during a press conference in Khartoum.

South Sudan’s former Vice President and South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar talking during a press conference in Khartoum.

Heads bowed, hundreds of South Sudanese prayed for peace Sunday ahead of the expected arrival in the capital of rebel chief Riek Machar, a move hoped to help end over two years of war.

After a week of delays caused in part by disagreements over his bodyguards, including the number of troops and weapons they will carry, the government on Saturday issued clearance for the man due to become South Sudan’s first vice president to fly to Juba on Monday.

“We hope God will bring peace,” said Joseph Deng, a 34-year old civil servant, after a service at the Emmanuel Parish in Juba, a Protestant church for the Dinka community.

“This is not what people thought we would have to face when we won our independence,” Deng said, as the packed congregation sang final hymns, with thumping pop music pouring from giant speakers. “There has been enough fighting.”

South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Machar of plotting a coup. The conflict has reignited ethnic divisions and been characterised by gross human rights violations.

Machar, who fled Juba as civil war broke out in December 2013, is due to forge a transitional unity government with arch-rival, Kiir, returning to the post of vice-president he was sacked from months before the violence began.

– ‘We are all South Sudanese’ –

The two leaders come from the South’s two main ethnic groups — Kiir from the Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer — tribes that are themselves split into multiple and sometimes rival clans.

“We are all South Sudanese,” said Mary Padar, after prayers in the church, a British colonial-era cinema reduced to ruins during the two-decade long war that paved the way for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011, and since converted into a church.

“We have to live together because this is the only country we have,” she added.

Machar was expected to return on April 18, a date already months behind the schedule agreed under an August 2015 peace deal. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has urged Machar to return to Juba “without delay”.

But his wrangling with Juba over weapons saw him miss a Saturday deadline to return, issued by the United States, Britain and Norway, key international backers of peace efforts. The trio warned of the risk of “further conflict and suffering” if he did not come back to be sworn in as vice president.

On paper at least, there is now nothing blocking his return on Monday.

South Sudan’s National Security issued a clearance letter granting him flight clearance on Saturday – saying airplanes could not land over the weekend “due to maintenance” at the airport.

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