They clapped. They danced. They sang. They celebrated in their hundreds at the opening of a new permanent United Nations peacekeeping base in the South Sudanese town of Yei.
The people of Yei had asked for UN troops to be sent to the area to help protect them from the impact of ongoing violence, including rape, roadside ambushes, killing and looting. The UN Mission in South Sudan has responded to that need.
One hundred and fifty Rwandan and Nepalese peacekeepers will initially be based in the town with that number gradually rising to 300. They will provide regular patrols, particularly to rural areas, to improve security so humanitarian agencies can reach people in need and to encourage people who fled the violence to return to their homes and farms.
Yei was hit particularly hard by the violence with most of its population fleeing to other parts of the country or across the border to escape the violence. Security has improved since the signing of a peace deal by warring parties last year and it is hoped that the situation will stabilize further with the arrival of the peacekeepers.
“I cannot promise that we are going to protect everybody,” said the Head of UNMISS and Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer. “What I think we are able to do though is to provide confidence in the area, be a witness to what is happening here, and to provide a better, secure environment for people to come back.”
Yei was once the breadbasket of South Sudan but crops were destroyed and farms abandoned. With the gradual improvement in security though, life and industry is beginning to return.
“UNMISS has come so that we can start peace. We have to forget the past,” said Yei Women’s Association Vice-Chair, Mama Hawa Adam. “UNMISS has come at the right time so we can start cultivating seeds because all of our food has been taken away. We don’t have that culture of begging for food, we produce our food using our hands.”
Humanitarian agencies are also welcoming the arrival of the peacekeeping troops, saying it will enable them to safely reach distant communities in need. The head of UNHCR in Yei said that, with the help of UNMISS, the agency and other humanitarians, had been able to reach Lasu where there has been violent clashes recently. “Unfortunately, when we arrived there was not a single civilian,” said Frances Okagu. “All of them have gone into the bush, fearing for their lives.”
This indicates that, while the town is becoming safer, the outlying areas are still suffering from the conflict. Community leaders say they are committed to continuing efforts to bring people together across the region.
“I would love it if the environment here was so good that we will be able to leave,” said David Shearer. “That will be a measure of success. I would like Yei to be an example to the rest of South Sudan so the people here can say they don’t need UNMISS anymore, it is peaceful here and, UNMISS, thank you for your job but goodbye we don’t want to see you here. That would be music to my ears.”