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This may be South Sudan’s best chance to end years of gang rape, looting, and random killing

Children play on a destroyed fighter plane in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on April 21.

Children play on a destroyed fighter plane in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on April 21.

(Carl de Souza / AFP/Getty Images)

The return of opposition leader Riek Machar to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, offers the troubled nation its best hope of emerging from decades of on-and-off war. But the last-minute foot dragging of Machar and his opponent, President Salva Kiir, suggests that hope is tenuous, an echo of the reluctance and delay that has dogged every step of the peace process.

The men, equally jealous, stubborn and ambitious, both fought in the rebel army for independence from Sudan and became partners in the country’s first independent government in 2011. But they fell out bitterly in 2013 after Kiir made it clear he wouldn’t make way so that Machar could succeed him, triggering ethnic fighting that spread from Juba to the north and east of the country.

Men, women and children — including hospital patients — were shot or hacked to death with machetes, and entire towns were looted and burned. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement government and army split acrimoniously, spelling disaster for efforts to improve lives in one of the world’s most corrupt and impoverished nations. The country is ranked 169 of 188 countries by the United Nations in terms of human development, as per capita gross national income plummeted 22% between 2010 and 2014. Deep suspicion and mistrust endure after the war that saw horrendous violence against civilians from both sides, with at least 50,000 people killed.

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The two have been pushed and dragged by the international community into a peace deal neither seems to want. Both sides threw up a flurry of last-ditch barriers over the last week, infuriating international diplomats, with the U.S. eventually pulling out of funding Machar’s flight on Sunday.

Kiir’s close ally and hardline army chief, Paul Malong Awal, has sharply opposed the peace deal and return of opposition forces to Juba, which is part of the delicate, internationally brokered peace deal. Awal fueled the mistrust and suspicion with a remark earlier this month that Machar would not become president while he was around. The opposition condemned the comment.

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A few days later, government security forces beat up 16 members of Machar’s publicity team in the capital, the Associated Press reported.

The peace deal had taken nearly 20 months after fighting broke out to broker. Kiir reluctantly signed it last August, while enumerating a long list of concerns, calling for revisions and complaining that it had been imposed by the international community.

The deal turns back the clock to 2013, with Kiir as president and Machar his restive deputy. It sets up a government of national unity and a two-year transition process leading to national elections. But the process now enters a hair-trigger stage, with soldiers from both sides in or near Juba, posing the risk that an ill-placed remark or a new disagreement about procedures could trigger violence.

An international commission has been set up to monitor each step of the peace process and step in whenever there is disagreement.

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Machar told reporters at the airport that obstacles to peace could be overcome, if there is political will.

“It is important to start thinking how we should kick off national reconciliation and healing in our country. The war was vicious, we have lost a lot of people in it, and we need to bring our people together so that they can unite, reconcile and heal the wounds, the mental wounds, that they have,” he said. He was sworn in as vice president immediately.

One major factor that risks destabilizing the peace deal is that the unity government could turn into an informal presidential race, with rivalry between Kiir and Machar playing out over 30 months as each tries to win an advantage and discredit the other.

South Sudan is facing a severe hunger crisis, because of drought, a poor harvest and conflict, with 6 million people in need of emergency assistance, more than half the population. Food prices have rocketed in recent months and the local currency has depreciated, meaning many people can barely afford to buy food.

South Sudan fought a 22-year civil war for independence from Sudan. After a peaceful referendum voting to secede, the world’s newest country took off in 2011 amid wild hopes and optimism.

When the war came, the oil-rich nation had seemed poised for economic success. The government was on the brink of signing a multibillion-dollar loan with China for the construction of the airport and major highways. War broke out days before the deal was to be signed.

Ten days earlier, a business conference in the capital, Juba, was attended by 500 foreign companies eager to invest. The Economist had predicted the country’s economic growth would soar to 35% in 2014.

The war displaced more than 2 million people, many of whom are afraid to go home.

During the conflict, government forces were told they could rape women and loot in lieu of pay, according to a report the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner released last month. People were shot or burned alive in their houses, the report said, adding that government soldiers committed more of the abuses than the opposition.

Releasing the report, U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Hussein said “the quantity of rapes and gang rapes described in the report must only be a snapshot of the real total. This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war.”

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Follow @RobynDixon_LAT for news from Africa.

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