The United Nations is exploring the option of opening a new base in the conflict-ridden Yei region of South Sudan if warring parties agree to allow peacekeepers unfettered access to outlying villages.
The Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), David Shearer, visited the town yesterday on a mission to assess the needs of the community against the value of establishing a base.
After meeting with political, religious and community leaders, he said there were several conditions that must be met before the UN could commit to a new base, including guaranteed access for peacekeepers to areas outside the town, the cooperation of local authorities, and a grassroots peace process that is genuinely inclusive.
“There’s no point just talking to your friends. You have to talk to your enemies too or there will be no peace,” said David Shearer.
Once the breadbasket of South Sudan, the lush and fertile land surrounding Yei supported a thriving trading centre and attracted crowds of weekend visitors from the capital. It was an ethnically diverse community and home to 300,000 people living largely in harmony.
That changed in 2016 when violence erupted between Government and Opposition forces as they fought for control over the strategic outpost on the main trading route with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Most of the population fled, leaving Yei a ghost town, which it largely remains today amidst ongoing violence, human rights abuses, and extreme poverty.
Once the breadbasket of South Sudan, the lush and fertile land surrounding Yei supported a thriving trading centre and attracted crowds of weekend visitors from the capital
Once abundantly available in this farming community, food is now scarce because people are afraid to travel outside the town to work on the land, harvest their crops or to buy food from markets.
Mothers’ Union leader, Mary Solomon, said women were being forced to choose between letting their children starve or risking abduction and rape by venturing out to find food.
“The hunger in Yei is forcing women to go outside the town and it is really impossible for us as women to go outside but, because of our children, we really want to rescue them from dying, we go outside and we endanger our lives. Once you go outside the town, three miles or five miles, you are abducted,” she said.
David Shearer said that it was a “tragedy” that the former breadbasket of South Sudan was now in need of food aid.
“Everything you would want is here and yet it has been destroyed by war. Seventy per cent of the population is no longer here. They are in refugee camps or displaced. That’s the real tragedy so whatever we can do to try and support bringing back Yei to what it was, we will try and do,” he said.
Members of the Yei State Transitional Legislative Assembly, Christian and Muslim religious leaders as well as women and youth representatives support the establishment of a new UN base in the town to provide protection and help build durable peace.
“If you have more peacekeepers here, you will really have that peace and then we will have the opportunity of being able to go outside to see our people in the villages and to go to the remote areas because the UN is there to keep people alive,” said Youth Leader Bida Chaplain.
The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Naphtali Hassen Gale, said there was little evidence of rule of law in the town and many crimes were tolerated instead of prosecuted. This had created a breakdown between the Government and the people and it would take time to restore confidence again, he said.
While a local peace agreement was signed last month, many in the community say that, unless the killings, abduction, rape and robberies stop, there is little hope of enduring peace or the recovery of their much-loved once vibrant and prosperous Yei.