After a 20-year separatist war against the Sudanese government and a popular referendum, South Sudan became an independent nation on July 9, 2011. The civil war had killed more than 2.5 million people and displaced more than twice as many; serious challenges remained for people in the word's newest nation. Tragically, in December 2013, a power struggle emerged between the president of the new country of South Sudan and his top deputy. This has deteriorated into a South Sudanese civil war that has ethnic groups pitted against each other and massive suffering of the population on all sides. The people of South Sudan have experienced violent conflict for more than 50 years; generations have grown up knowing nothing but war. The war since 2013 has displaced more than 1.5 million people and has become characterized by sadistic human rights abuses. The UN estimates that 16,000 child soldiers are now part of the fight, as armed groups actively recruit vulnerable youth and use them to commit new atrocities.
Building Peace Among People Impacted by Psychological Trauma
As part of a Trauma Informed Peacebuilding initiative developed by Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBB), Karuna Center program manager Ginny Morrison has co-lead programs in South Sudanese encampments of internally displaced persons in 2015 and 2016. Karuna Center is the newest member of a strong project team that includes MBB, Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance (a South Sudanese organization), and Nonviolent Peaceforce. Together, our goal is to “inoculate” youth against the lure of ongoing fighting and revenge, through the use of MBB’s Trauma Informed Peacebuilding program.
A hidden driver of the South Sudanese conflict is widespread psychological trauma—a natural human reaction to the depraved violence that many South Sudanese people have witnessed or experienced. Unresolved trauma, however, leaves people vulnerable to reacting violently themselves. Trauma is a barrier to trust, resolving conflicts, attending school, and sustaining livelihood: the very elements needed for a state to recover from cyclical violence and to provide youth with constructive opportunities.
As a very first step toward peace, our focus in South Sudan is educating community women and youth about the reality of trauma and how it drives conflict, and building skills to manage both. Evidence suggests that most people—not all, but most—do not need one-on-one professional therapy to recover from trauma. Instead, they heal through a combination of supports such as empathy, sustained connection with others, and rebuilding the individual’s strengths and agency. As with all Karuna and MBB efforts, this project takes a culturally relevant approach that builds upon local strengths and social ties to help communities recover and prevent future violence.
Supporting South Sudanese and Sudanese Women Leaders
Karuna Center's 2011-2012 work in South Sudan focused on issues of women's rights in the context of South Sudan's secession from the nation. Our role was to support a coalition of women leaders from North and South Sudan, who had been brought together by the Institute for Inclusive Security and been meeting since 2006. Through all the years of civil war in Sudan, these women offered support to each other and shared advocacy for women throughout what is now Sudan and South Sudan.
In April 2011, Karuna Center’s founder, Paula Green, was invited to facilitate a plan for the future of this Sudanese women’s coalition given South Sudan's approaching independence. In 2012, Karuna Center and Inclusive Security followed up with seminars for each side of the coalition separately, including one in Juba for South Sudanese women, with a focus on increasing the capacity of each group of women leaders within their newly divided countries. We brought a peacebuilding lens to skill-building workshops ranging from strategic planning and coalition-building to dialogue skills, group facilitation techniques, managing conflict successfully, and reconciliation/forgiveness.