A child in South Sudan suffers from malnutrition. (James Sprankle/For the Washington Post)

“I wish,” a South Sudanese female aid worker said to me, “they had waited five or 10 years before resuming the war.” This is what passes for hope in South Sudan.

It was only 2½ years after independence in 2011 that war resumed. “They” are President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar, whose political rivalry has turned into an armed conflict with an ugly ethnic subtext. Kiir is a Dinka; Machar a Nuer. Recent bloodshed has deepened old resentments between the tribes.

The result is a tragic betrayal of promise. South Sudan’s government prints money to cover spending as oil revenue falls. Rapid inflation is causing many South Sudanese to burn through savings just to pay for food. Some parts of the country are in the shadow of famine, measured by the stick-thin upper arms of malnourished children. Teachers and other civil servants are being paid sporadically or not at all.

There are reports of general lawlessness not far outside the capital of Juba — attacks by militias that claim to be associated with the rebels but are probably just criminal gangs. A doctor in Kuajok told me that a truck convoy of bed nets had recently been stolen by “gun people” on the highway. An estimated 13,000 children are now associated with armed groups. More than 1.2 million South Sudanese have been forced from their homes.

Absent a real sense of nationhood and shared citizenship, some kind of negotiated settlement is necessary between the groups with the guns.

But the combatants currently seem more interested in maneuvering for position before the rains turn roads into mud, rather than negotiating a settlement in good faith. Machar’s forces appear to be emboldened by the recent defection of a disgruntled commander and are making tactical moves to undermine oil production, the government’s main (and almost exclusive) source of revenue. Military operations on both sides lack command and control, producing a war sustained by looting and advanced through atrocities. There are reports of leveled villages and piles of burnt bodies. But the vastness of South Sudan probably swallows the worst of the horrors.

The Obama administration has given the impression of activity but has little access or leverage in Juba. According to one former diplomat I consulted, the administration is looking for “low-risk, high-reward” ideas — which do not exist. Forcing Kiir and Machar into an agreement is inherently difficult, since their military commanders seem to call many of the shots. Diplomatic pressure from neighboring countries is of limited value because all have substantial conflicts of interest.

Both the United States and the African Union have moved in the direction of targeted sanctions against individuals involved in atrocities. Direct engagement by President Obama could be useful to restart meaningful negotiations. And South Sudanese church leaders will need to be given a larger role — the only people with the standing to conduct mediation and to remind South Sudan of a common identity and humanity that take precedence over tribe.

The conflict in South Sudan has created vacuums of sovereignty — which some institutions have stepped up admirably to fill.

As the atrocities began, United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan opened the gates of their bases to fleeing ethnic minorities, mainly Nuer. More than 130,000 people have found refuge on U.N. compounds. The resulting camps are makeshift and have serious problems of their own, but what the United Nations has done here is unprecedented, at least on this scale — protecting a vulnerable minority in the middle of a chaotic armed conflict. The peacekeepers have saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives and prevented a cycle of hatred and retribution that would have utterly destroyed South Sudan’s future as a nation. This is what the United Nations was meant to be.

And nongovernmental organizations — such as World Vision (my host), Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children — have assumed a front-line role in responding to South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis. In Kuajok, NGOs and local medical officials have cobbled together 20,000 doses of malaria treatment, bracing for the rain and mosquitoes to come. Aid groups are not only providing drugs, food and services but also educating locals to be resilient, resourceful and community-minded. And the resilience of South Sudan’s people, through decades of war and struggle, is a wonder of history and an inspiration to the human family.

Their suffering now raises a question: Will we merely watch as the world’s most fragile state is smashed into pieces?

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