Peter Kuel’s voice brims with passion, sadness, and rage as he describes the brutality of his home country’s current crisis. He waves his hands with frustration as he tells me about the mass killings and psychological terrors facing the people of South Sudan.
Kuel moved to the United States in 2003 to escape civil war in Sudan. Now he owns a taxi service in Tacoma.
Kuel says it is in his nature to stand up for human rights and defend people. Perhaps that’s what led him to spearhead South Sudan International Advocacy for Human Rights (SSIAHR). With members spanning both the U.S and Canada the organization works to publicly condemn human rights abuses in South Sudan that often go unnoticed by the rest of the world.
He describes the current situation as tragic, repeating over and over again that people are dying; the South Sudanese government has turned against its own citizens.
“If a security agent can go door to door and kill people, the only thing you can call it is a genocide,” he says.
South Sudan has been in conflict for over a decade, ever since it was still part of neighboring Sudan. It finally seceded and formed an independent country in a moment of hope back in July 2011.
But last December, violence erupted between supporters of President Salwa Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, whom Kiir had dismissed. The political conflict rapidly spiraled into an ethnic one between the Dinka and Nuer people of South Sudan, affiliated with Kiir and Machar respectively.
A video produced by Oxfam explains the humanitarian fallout of the conflict in South Sudan.
After six months of fighting, South Sudan is now considered the world’s most fragile county according to The Fund for Peace, a U.S research institution.
On Monday, a South Sudanese government official refuted this claim, pointing out that nearby countries like Somalia have been caught in intractable conflicts for years, while South Sudan’s government is “managing the crisis.” The official, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mawien Makol Arik, also called for increased international aid, saying that without it South Sudan could indeed become a failed state.
Militants on both sides of the conflict have raided farms and civilian food supplies, and cut off supply routes, leading to food scarcity and the looming threat of an artificially induced famine. Hundreds are already battling hunger and malnutrition. A May 27th Mercy Corps article described people — many of them children — resorting to untreated water and wild roots, berries even water lilies and stray dogs for food. The rainy season has only caused more hardship, flooding makeshift housing and ushering in waterborne diseases.
Aid is available, but strained. Because of widespread violence and a growing food crisis, refugees are streaming to camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Mercy Corps reported on their website that there just aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the more than 1 million people who have been displaced.
“The world is keeping quiet. I never heard any world leader that condemn it.” Kuel says in frustration about the international community’s lack of attention to South Sudan’s human rights abuses.
Though far from home, Kuel and others from the Seattle South Sudanese community aren’t so distanced in their minds and hearts. Sentiments of helplessness, despair and frustration abound, sometimes making it difficult to keep up with the news.
“Everything I’ve heard was so depressing I’ve taken a break from it all,” says Liz Peter, a Seattle resident whose family is from South Sudan.
“It’s hopeless…If my people are dying, my life is worthless,” Kuel says “So even though I am here, I am not comfortable because my people [are more] important than me.”
Kuel is planning a visit to Washington D.C along with other members of SSIAHR next week for a rally that they hope will bring attention to the South Sudan crisis.
He foresees about 100-200 people attending the rally, mostly human rights supporters from around the continent. They plan to march in front of the White House to ask for U.S government support in pressuring President Kiir to step down, which might alleviate the crisis.
Kuel is keeping faith. Still, he knows there is no solution without some kind of action.
“I’m praying to god that we can have our nation back,” he says.