They came before dawn.
Arriving in Freedom Square in the murky pre-morning light, hundreds of athletes stretched their legs and jogged on the spot as they prepared to challenge themselves and each other in a 10-kilometre race around the streets of South Sudan’s capital city.
The runners come from the ranks of the country’s various organized forces – the military, police, prison, fire-fighting and wildlife services. Wearing brightly-coloured vests indicating which unit they serve with, they are here to compete, but are also united by a desire to promote awareness of human rights and the need for peace in the conflict-affected country.
“The coming of organized forces together is an amazing thing to show that they are really working for peace,” said Deng William Alaak from the Voice for Peace, Protection and Development agency. “They are trying to champion human rights in this country. It is a great initiative that South Sudan should carry forward during the implementation of the peace agreement.”
The event was organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to mark the International Human Rights Day. It was certainly an unusual sight for commuters more used to seeing military officers carrying guns on the streets than watching them dodge boda-boda motorcycles and sprint alongside taxi vans in the morning traffic. But the crowds were appreciative of their efforts, waving and cheering them along.
The first male runner to make it across the finish line was David Gongi Taban, a soldier in the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces. Barely out of breath despite his fast finish, he shared his message for the day about respect for diversity and freedom of expression in a country where hate speech has been a serious problem during the five-year civil war.
“Indeed, everyone has to have his or her rights in order not to be suppressed,” he said. “Let everyone express his or her feelings to every citizen and our country. It’s our right.”
Not far behind David Gongi Taban, was his colleague Selina Agor James, who also serves with the military in South Sudan. Her focus is on the future for young people like her who have suffered so much during the violent conflict, often missing out on the chance to access education and reach their full potential in life.
“I want South Sudan to be a better country,” she said. “Our country is the best of everything. But our leaders, they don’t remember that we are their children. They just think about war and we don’t want war in this country.”
The event took place on the 70th anniversary of the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration is about the power of ideas to change the world and inspiring people to work together for freedom, equality and dignity for all. This message comes at a critical time in the peace process in South Sudan.
“The only way that South Sudan is going to recover is by having peace and respect for human rights,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS, David Shearer. “If respect for human rights is there, then there is peace. If there is peace, it involves respect for human rights and people’s ethnicity and political persuasion. The two things go hand in hand. So, the question of us being involved here is non-negotiable. We need to be here and putting on events like this so that word gets out.”
He said UNMISS would continue to use its resources to support reconciliation efforts and bring together the various armed groups to work for peace, so that the next generation have a brighter future to look forward to.