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A convoy of old landcruisers sweep into the compound at speed. Men in military fatigues jump off the back of the vehicle carrying guns. Most disperse under nearby trees while others stay close by their VIP as he emerges from a shiny black 4-wheel-drive to be greeted by other political leaders.
This kind of show of military force is not unusual when dignitaries arrive at events in South Sudan. But the difference at the peace-building forum in the Western Equatorian town of Maridi, is that the soldiers from opposing forces have come together after years of fighting each other to talk reconciliation and peace.
They are joined by Governors and representatives of four territories, religious leaders, women and youth representatives to discuss how they can move the implementation of the peace deal forward.
There is palpable enthusiasm for peace across South Sudan. In fact, progress towards reconciliation and peace appears to be moving faster at a local level compared to national efforts. In Maridi, the reduction in violence that has followed the new peace deal is a relief and an opportunity to rebuild their lives after six years of conflict.
“If the leaders can bring us peace, I will be the happiest person in the world just for the sake of my children because I am working right now but am earning only 600 South Sudanese pounds (US$3) which cannot feed my children.” says Joyce Seliwa.
The peace-building forum in Maridi was organized by local authorities, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and the Ceasefire Transitional Security Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (CTSMVM).
For the leader of the South Sudan National Movement for Change party, Joseph Bakosoro, it was an emotional return to his home territory after five years in exile. He has high hopes for peace and for his people who greeted him with enthusiasm.
“I’m very excited to see them after five years out of the country. I never left them with hatred. I’m coming back with love and with unity and let us continue to push the country forward,” he says. “Never go back to war again. We need peace. If anybody has any intention to go to war, please take care of the vulnerable, the women and children who are suffering. We don’t need war again. That is my message.”
The formation of a new transitional government in South Sudan has been delayed for six months to allow the parties time to agree on several outstanding issues that could impact on the fragile peace process if not resolved. One of those issues is a decision about future boundaries and states. Passions among those who want to preserve existing territories were running high at the forum.
“The creation of the states did not come in a vacuum. It has been a result of the systematic thought process by the leadership in this country and you can see the jubilation, you can see the passion, you can see the emotions that people are articulating with regards to them protecting what they already have,” says Maridi Governor, Africano Mande.
“What is important is that, as much as we respect the mandate of the Independent Boundaries Commission, we should resist this word in inverted commas “appropriate” number of states. There is no magic number and there’s no mathematics that calculates with accuracy the appropriate number of states so let it be left to the people of South Sudan to decide.”
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS is optimistic that many outstanding issues can be resolved by 12 November.
“We are committed to this peace process,” says David Shearer. “There is no peace process anywhere in the world that has been perfect and this one is not perfect. But it’s what we’ve got in front of us. There is no Plan B and so we are totally committed to getting in behind it and making it work.”
“The peace agreement has already had real advantages. There are people moving back to their homes. There are people who are not facing violence. There are people who are starting to grow their crops. That’s what a peace agreement brings. We have to get in behind it and make sure it’s sustainable,” he says.
In Maridi, there are clear signs that peace is already paying dividends. The lush and fertile landscape is bursting with newly planted crops and people are determined to secure lasting peace so they can restore their reputation as the once-prosperous breadbasket of South Sudan.