While much of our foreign affairs reporting in the U.S. is dedicated to the years-long civil war plaguing Syria, news coverage of another civil war continues to go unnoticed or nonexistent. In South Sudan, what began as a power struggle between the nascent country’s political leaders has now transformed into a larger conflict between ethnic groups, which has led to widespread ethnic cleansing, thousands of deaths, starvation, gang rape and the displacement of millions.
Coverage from organizations like the New York Times and Al Jazeera English exists, but it too frequently gets sidelined from the cable news cycle because it must compete with stories about our president’s most recent Twitter tirade or his new and improved version of a Muslim travel ban.
South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, which gained its independence in July 2011 with the help of the United States, is now on the brink of genocide. Only two years after its birth, civil war broke out between the two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, as well as other smaller groups.
Millions have been uprooted from their homes and families have been torn apart. According to United Nations officials, malnutrition rates have soared above emergency levels. U.S. think tank Fund for Peace ranks South Sudan as the second most fragile state in the world in its 2016 Fragile State Index report. Since 2012, it has consistently held either first, second or third place on the list. The Fragile State Index scores each country on social, political and economic indicators. Violations of these indicators, such as corruption and lack of state legitimacy, human rights violations, widespread abuse, internal use of militia and ethnic violence add to a country’s overall “score.”
In the 2016 report, Syria was sixth on the list. I do not wish to minimize the pain and suffering of millions of Syrians but to highlight the similar struggles experienced by millions in South Sudan. In Syria and elsewhere, the Islamic State uses its interpretation of Sharia Law to incite violence; in South Sudan, it’s a battle between ethnic factions.
There are probably more similarities between the atrocities in Syrian and South Sudan than there are differences. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of committing war crimes against his people. In South Sudan, the conflict between political powers was a direct cause of the civil war. The goal of the Islamic State is to eliminate all “infidels,” using social media as a tool of propaganda to incite violence and spread its message. In South Sudan, a similar tactic is used to spread hate speech through social media.
Stalin famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” These similar crises, in combination with what seems like a perfect storm of other humanitarian disasters, have contributed to creating a greater number of displaced people in the world today than ever before in the world's frequently brutal, wartorn history. Looking at the world's numb response to the incomprehensible reality of 65 million forced to abandon their homes, it's difficult not to see shades of Stalin's reasoning.
Death by barrel bombs is loud and seizes the world’s attention. Death by starvation, however, is silent. This is the most noticeable difference between Syria and South Sudan in my eyes. Regardless, both atrocities will carry on as international aid is thwarted.
President Trump’s travel ban, new or old, is a ban of Muslim refugees to the United States. Sudan remains on the list. Syria remains on the list. If this is the president’s truest effort to counter terrorism, I worry that we have already failed. It’s safe to bet that the president is blithely unaware of the looming conflict in South Sudan. To my knowledge, he has never spoken publicly about it, and we do not know if he has a stance on it at all.
The United States’ inaction has largely failed Syrians, including President Obama’s foreign policy failure on Syria. So far, inaction from South Sudan’s surrounding states, as well as the U.S., allows the civil war to rage on and for famine to permeate what once was a promising new country.
However, outside focus should not be wasted on determining whether South Sudan is close to genocide or not. The violence, gang rape, and displaced peoples should be enough to deem external action necessary. If the creation of the International Criminal Court is to truly signify change with its “never again” attitude toward the Darfur genocide, we cannot afford to wait until we can properly apply a textbook definition of genocide to South Sudan before we decide to act.
International aid is needed now. It was needed yesterday, and yet the South Sudanese government has blocked UN peacekeepers and food aid from reaching its people. The U.S. government has remained silent, and I don’t imagine that will change anytime soon. As American citizens, we can only consume so much news at a time, and when much of it is saturated with our toddler of a leader’s early morning Twitter rants, any hope I have remaining begins to wane.
While Donald Trump touts the success of his travel ban on Muslims by claiming it will put America first, civilians in South Sudan and Syria alike will continue to suffer and die at the hands of their own governments.