Ralf is a businessman in Torit in the Eastern Equatoria region of South Sudan. Of foreign origin, Ralf runs a shop of mixed goods at the town’s main market.
While business has recovered significantly since the crisis in July 2016, traders and local community members live in fear and apprehension of the South Sudan People’s Defence Force (SSPDF).
“It’s dangerous to live together with the soldiers,” says Ralf, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, as he mentions a recent incident where he was intimidated and threatened by members of the organized forces.
He recounts how, several months back, soldiers visited his shop to confiscate a bag full of money he was safe-keeping for his brother. According to him, they dragged his brother off to the military barracks, then returned to threaten him with physical force.
“They nearly killed me just because I was safely keeping my brother’s bag,” he explains.
Luckily enough, Ralf managed to get away unscathed. Reports of soldiers bullying traders and other civilians in Torit are not uncommon, however.
A businesswoman with the alias Dorothy, shares her story of how a soldier threatened her when he “discovered” three bullets in her shop. Dorothy says that the uniformed man had planted the ammunition there to frame her, hoping to elicit a bribe.
“Fortunately, a policeman who was dressed in civilian clothes witnessed the soldier’s action and intervened, so the soldier had to go away,” she tells reluctantly, still fearful of actions that could be taken against her.
Locals are hesitant to open up about such encounters with members of the armed forces. Many of them withhold their stories for fear of repercussions.
Yet confidence and trust between the local population and the army – one of whose duties it is to protect civilians – are crucial to bolstering security in the area and effectively implementing the revitalized peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa last month.
Torit’s Interreligious Council, along with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, have recognized the importance of such mutual trust.
“When civilians see soldiers with red collars, they fear. When the civilians fear you [the SSPDF] they will not be transparent and will not tell you the truth,” said Archbishop Benard Oringa, who is also a senior advisor of the Interreligious Council, which recently held a consultative meeting with SSPDF about this issue to pave the way for a possible civilian-military dialogue.
Abraham Majak Deng, a senior officer of the SSPDF in Torit, welcomes the premise and acknowledges the role of the organized forces.
“We are brought here to protect civilians. We are their soldiers, yet we are also their children. When I retire [from the army], I will return to my [civilian] brothers, so we need peace,” he said.
Consultations with various sectors of society – including chiefs, youth, civil society, foreign business partners and the elderly – are underway this month.
“If civilians and SSPDF dialogue for peace, there will be no fear. Women will fetch firewood and water safely,” said Davidikai Ikai, a representative of the Itwak Women’s Group.
Anthony Beida, a counselor at Muyoyo and Beida Law Firm, pointed out that many sections of civil society have lost their faith in the army’s commitment to maintaining security.
“It would be relevant to organize a dialogue, as it would remind the army of its mandate to protect civilians,” he explained.
The Interreligious Council and UNMISS are hopeful that a potential meeting to reconcile and increase mutual trust could reduce crime, strengthen security, stimulate the economy, and encourage many South Sudanese refugees in Uganda to return.