An old rivalry between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar is at the root of South Sudan’s civil war — a conflict that has raged on for years.
But Pope Francis asked the two warring leaders to put their differences behind them this week when the Vatican took the unusual step of hosting the two men and other South Sudanese leaders for a spiritual retreat aimed at ending the violence.
On Thursday, the pontiff appealed to Kiir and Machar to move forward, bending down to kiss their feet as he asked them to “stay in peace.”
“There will be many problems, but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems,” Reuters reported him as saying. Francis also urged them to keep disagreements “within you, inside the office, so to speak.”
“But in front of the people, hold hands united,” he said. “So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”
The encounter made for a striking scene: one of the world’s most powerful religious leaders bent over the feet of two men responsible for a conflict that may have left 383,000 people dead. The war in South Sudan broke out in December 2013 after tensions between Kiir and Machar escalated. Soon, troops loyal to each man opened fire on each other in the capital of Juba. It quickly morphed into an ethnically fueled conflict and spread across the country, which just two years before had won independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan.
After years fighting for freedom from Khartoum, South Sudanese had little time to relish peace before the most recent conflict began. Since late 2013, millions have been displaced from their homes, some have been subjected to man-made famine and many are still going hungry. More than a million fled over the border into Uganda, sparking one of the biggest refugee crises in the world and carrying with them stories of mass rape, disease and starvation.
Observers doubted that a brief summit at the Vatican could help the two leaders implement the latest version of a peace agreement they’ve bickered over for years.
The Vatican summit is “sort of one of those moments where it leaves me without words,” said Payton Knopf, a former member of the United Nations’ panel of experts on South Sudan. “It would literally take a miracle from God for Riek and Salva to ever be part of the solution here."
The ongoing conflict has made it difficult to document a death toll in South Sudan. But a study funded by the State Department that was released last year determined that more than 380,000 people are likely to have died.
Concerns over how a solution to the crisis could be brokered grew this week when the Sudanese military ousted the country’s longtime president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, after months of street protests. Bashir has helped mediate conversations between Machar and Kiir, who signed yet another deal in September, raising fears that his swift departure could throw the ongoing peace process into further flux.
Alan Boswell, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter that Bashir’s departure means that, in the short-term, “there are no mediators.”
“More clearly than ever, it is now up to Kiir and Machar if they want to move the peace deal forward,” Boswell wrote.
It will be hard to see what Bashir’s ouster means for the South Sudan peace deal. The Sudanese military said it plans to suspend the constitution and run the country for two years, but protesters are staying put, calling for a civilian government.
As for what that means for the country’s southern neighbor?
When it came to South Sudan’s civil war, “the international community was distracted enough before this morning,” Knopf said, referencing the military takeover in Sudan on Thursday. “It’s going to be even more distracted now. And international distraction is why Salva and Riek have been able to get away [with extreme violence] for years."