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World

South Sudan's Current Conflict Leaves Residents In 'Desperate State'

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

For more about what's happening in South Sudan and how the country ended up in the current conflict, I talked to Justin Lynch. He's a journalist who's based in the capital, Juba. And today we reached him on Skype.

JUSTIN LYNCH: I think that this is one of the most uncertain times that I've been here, which is really saying a lot. The economic situation of the country has really the population in a desperate state. There's just no food, and there's just no money in the country. And that's why we have nearly 200,000 people living in protection of civilian sites across the country because there's just nothing for a lot of people.

MCEVERS: Protection of civilian sites - those - that's the term for basically refugee camps. To understand how South Sudan got to where it is right now, I'm wondering if we can just back up a little bit. I mean it was just five years ago that South Sudan became the newest country in the world. There was all this fanfare and celebration and hope. And a big supporter of this project was the United States.

LYNCH: Yeah, well, I think that what South Sudan shows is the limits of American diplomacy. The U.S. really was essential to creating South Sudan as a country, and it gave it the international recognition that it needed. But once it got independence, from then on, the U.S. basically lost all influence. Right when it got independence, the country started to have a lot of infighting between its leaders.

MCEVERS: And just describe these two players. You know, it's a new country. It's 2011. South Sudan has a president, Salva Kiir, and a vice president, Riek Machar. But then these two begin fighting themselves. What happened?

LYNCH: In the summer of 2013, Riek Machar was fired as the vice president. And basically from that moment to December 2013, it seemed to be that war was going to be inevitable. I mean there was warning after warning, and it finally erupted on December 15, 2013.

MCEVERS: And many people paint this as an ethnic conflict between the two of them. Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are from two different ethnic groups. Is that a fair assessment of their rivalry?

LYNCH: I really don't think so. And this is something that experts debated about a lot. But most of the population doesn't really see it in this way I think. I think that they are really sick of war. It's been decades they have been fighting. And this most recent war was certainly the most brutal that they experienced, and so they want this to end. And it really doesn't have this ethnic flavor at the local level.

MCEVERS: When you talk about decades of war, I mean that's decades of fighting between what is now South Sudan and Sudan. And then this civil war inside South Sudan was supposed to end with a peace agreement that was signed last year. Why hasn't that held?

LYNCH: Diplomats pushed very hard for a peace agreement in August, and the United States was essential in this. Many diplomats say that the U.S. forced both sides to sign it. And neither side was fully invested in this peace agreement. Fighting continued, and it took many, many months to actually get Riek Machar and his rebel army back in the capital of Juba. And took them only two or three months for this whole thing to fall apart again, which was entirely predictable.

MCEVERS: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened to cut aid to South Sudan if peace isn't restored. How real is that threat?

LYNCH: I don't think it's very real at all. And we've seen this from the U.S. government time and time again. They've consistently laid out red lines here, things that the South Sudanese government and the opposition can't do, and they've never really followed through. When neither side really wants this, the U.S. can't really do that much, and I think we're seeing that now, where they're really trying to put a Band-Aid on this peace deal that they created. And both sides are going to ignore it probably.

MCEVERS: Justin Lynch is a journalist who is based in South Sudan. He's also a fellow at the think tank New America. We reached him by Skype in Juba. Thanks a lot.

LYNCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.