Waiting for Change

There were a couple big anniversaries this week in the world of conflict resolution.  The first was July 9th, which marked South Sudan’s fourth year of independence.  The second is today, July 11th, which is 20 years since the genocide at Srebrenica. Both of these days have professional personal significance for me.  They should be days to remember those who died, but also celebrate the respective progress of the nations.  They are not.  I find myself, in both cases, mourning lost opportunities.

I first got involved with the South Sudanese community in Boston when I was in 5th grade.  I met some of the lost boys and started volunteering/hanging out at the South Sudanese community center in Cambridge.  Throughout the rest of middle school and high school I spent large portions of my free time at the center.  The South Sudanese in Boston welcomed me as an extension of their community.  Their history was the first human rights cause I ever learned about and for that reason it holds a very significant place in my heart.  I spent years with watching the progress of South Sudan with nervous anticipation. I passionately discussed succession politics in the years leading up to the referendum. I waited for the decision, in an AME church in Dorchester, surrounded by the South Sudanese community, praying for separation.  July 9th 2011 was a day filled with hope and it felt like a massive victory.  It meant that the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who’s militia had tormented the population of the South was now separated by an international border.  Many of the South Sudanese I knew repatriated.  There was great hope for the presidency of democratically elected Salva Kiir.  There was a suspended moment of naivety where I believed that peace had finally arrived for South Sudan, but that hope quickly disappeared.

The following years of crisis in were disappointing, but not at all surprising.  It was a familiar story of struggle, corruption, and failure in a developing country.  I and many South Sudanese in the diaspora, believed that the international community would be heavily involved in creating a new government for South Sudan.  The U.S. and the international community played a crucial role in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which ended the Second Sudanese Civil War, and monitoring the following six years of peace.  So there was reason to believe, even precedent that the international community would have a hand in creating democracy in the worlds newest country.  Some might say this would have been seen as neo-colonial, but the South Sudanese were asking for help.  The new nation was fragile and they wanted helped building infrastructure. They didn’t get it.

Today South Sudan is once again ensnared in conflict. Now they have moved up to the number one ranking in the fragile state index.  In the past four years there has been brutal fighting in Abyei and Kafia Kingi, two parts of the border which were not demarcated in the succession agreement. There has been an attempted coup by the Vice President, violence in the capital (Juba), and immense corruption.  There has been outcry from the international community about how disappointing the current state of the country is and how they expected more. They fail, however to recognize their own culpability.  This is a classic problem in human rights cases, instead of early intervention, the international community waits until things have reached a point of extreme crisis, so there is greater political support, and then they come in on their white horse.  But their white horse is more of a donkey and is doing little to save the day.  It’s been four years and there is no peace in Sudan.  Many reports talk of indiscriminate violence against civilians.  Four years later and there is no resolution, just a different kind of conflict.

The story is different, but equally heartbreaking in Bosnia.  It is a country that I have always studied from a far, due to my interest in genocide, but this April I visited Bosnia with one of my courses on study abroad. In this case, my academic knowledge proceeded my emotional connection, but after I visited the mass graves at Srebrenica I felt undeniably connected to the events there.

I have written about this in an earlier post, but the crimes at Srebrenica, the international failings, and the current ethnic tensions seem to be forgotten by history.  Bosnia is a country where there are three presidents, one for each of the ethnic groups.  Schools are ethnically segregated and do not teach the conflict. The history textbooks go until 1992 (the start of the war) and the next chapter is 1995 (the Dayton peace agreement).  Some Bosnians have told me that the ethnic tensions are worse today between the three groups than they were before the war. Roughly fifty percent of youth in the country are unemployed and about seventy percent want to leave to country.  Bosnia refuses to address the violence from the war and they cannot agree upon a single version of the truth, but the silence is poisoning their country.

During the genocide, the United Nations forces fled and over the course of a few days 8,372 Bosniaks, primarily men, were murdered by Mladic’s forces.  Systematic rape of Bosniak women was also a common tactic during the conflict. The U.S. and NATO forces were heavily involved in monitoring the peace in 1995, but this had trauma of its own.  There was widespread rape, a large portion of whom were minors, by NATO forces.  The failures of the international community was two fold in this case.  The first was their failure to get involved or prevent the genocide. The second was their own human rights abuses when they were in the country.  Today Bosnia is struggling, living in an unstable peace that is held together by ethnic segregation, that only breeds more prejudice.

There is little to no acknowledgement by the government of the genocide in Srebrenica and many of the citizens deny its existence.  Today as the international community convenes in Bosnia together to mourn the 20th anniversary of the genocide, I find myself also mourning the current state of things in Bosnia.  There is no national recognition, justice, or memorial of the war.

Like in South Sudan, Bosnia was filled with possibilities.  Both countries were racked by ethnic violence and ignored by the international community. Both had to promise to be success stories, but have fallen incredibly short.  The countries themselves, the UN, and international actors are at fault for this.  Today the UN and the corrupt governments are not suffering, the civilians are.

Around the world on July 9th and July 11th many people were celebrating, but I was not one of them.  For all the resources and energy poured into these countries, fragile peace is insufficient. In South Sudan civilians are getting murdered by their government and militias for power and access to resources.  Many of these people are poor, rural, agricultural families, with no one to advocate for them or tell the world when they die.  In Bosnia ethnic tensions are worsening, the country is financially corrupt, and the international actors that are still present are becoming exasperated.  These are not days for celebration, but for reflection on how little these situations have changed and how more work we have to do. 

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