A civil war that has plagued South Sudan, the world’s newest country, over the past four years verges on ethnic genocide and has left half the prewar population in need of humanitarian aid. As the international community tries to help end the violence, the U.S. Institute of Peace brought two of the country’s promising young leaders—one from each side of the divide—to Washington to pursue research on ways to heal the rifts. By the end of their stay, they may have learned just as much from each other.

Ajing Chol Giir Magot and Francis Banychieng Jor each have experienced tremendous loss in the violence that broke out within 18 months of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan. The United States was a key supporter of the referendum that resulted in independence and has invested more than $2 billion in assistance for the new nation. The conflict has attracted some attention in Western capitals, though it has often been drowned out by the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The causes of South Sudan’s conflict are complex, but both President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar have appealed for loyalty to their two main ethnic groups in their struggle for power.

Ajing is from Kiir’s ethnic group, or tribe, the Dinka. Francis is Nuer, as is Machar. The two young leaders, who were active in civic groups in South Sudan, describe in this video how they shared an apartment in Washington during their stay and got to know one another through USIP’s Sudanese and South Sudanese Youth Leaders Program for peacebuilders ages 18 to 35. The two overcame mistrust stemming from their country’s past of ethnic hatred and violence that has been exacerbated by the current conflict.

Francis came to USIP to study how he might help increase the role of women to strengthen political processes. His research persuaded him that reaching that goal will require helping men in South Sudan understand how to transform cultural norms and traditional ideas of manhood that marginalize women and perpetuate violence.

Ajing believes sports can be powerful in uniting Dinka and Nuer people by demonstrating that it’s possible to compete without violence. He draws from personal experience. His late uncle, Manute Bol, was a star player for the Washington Bullets basketball team in the 1980s and 1990s, and a prominent donor and activist for refugee assistance and ethnic reconciliation in Sudan.

Francis and Ajing are exceptional in many ways, but they also typify the country’s recent history and rifts, especially as both of their families have suffered during the war. Their experience together illustrates the possibilities for healing those divides.

Related Publications

The South Sudan Peace Process Archive: A Window into Mediation

The South Sudan Peace Process Archive: A Window into Mediation

Monday, March 29, 2021

By: Zach Vertin; Aly Verjee

As part of its commitment to learning from peace processes, the U.S. Institute of Peace is pleased to launch the South Sudan Peace Process Archive, which aims to provide South Sudanese citizens, mediators, policymakers, academics and other interested readers a window into the 2013-2015 negotiations that attempted to end the conflict that began in South Sudan in late 2013. Documents for this archive were first assembled and organized in 2016. Now, archive curators and former peace process advisers Zach Vertin and Aly Verjee discuss their motivations for assembling and organizing the documents and what they hope the archive can contribute to future peace processes.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Peace Processes

South Sudan: From 10 States to 32 States and Back Again

South Sudan: From 10 States to 32 States and Back Again

Monday, March 1, 2021

By: Matthew Pritchard; Aly Verjee

Last year, South Sudan reintroduced 10 subnational states in South Sudan, in place of the 32 states controversially created in 2017. Far from being an obscure matter of administrative organization, the initial, dramatic redivision of territory in the midst of protracted violence and large-scale displacement had a significant impact on representation, as well as social, economic, and political relations throughout the country. In 2018-19, researchers commissioned by USIP sought to better understand the decision-making process behind the creation of the 32 states in South Sudan. Researchers Matthew Pritchard and Aly Verjee discuss their findings in light of current developments.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

In South Sudan, the Hope and Pain of Nonviolence

In South Sudan, the Hope and Pain of Nonviolence

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

By: Yeng Lambo

After 3 a.m., my cellphone rang with the voices of relatives shouting that South Sudan’s spasms of violence had struck our family. In the night, armed youths of a rival community had ambushed a cattle camp of my clan, killing my cousins and other young cowherds as they slept, and stealing more than 400 cattle. Men from of my clan were gathering guns to race into the darkness to counterattack. If my country is ever to have peace, we must break such cycles of vengeance. So, I pleaded with my elder aunts and uncles to prevent that battle. I still do not know if we have truly succeeded.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action

In South Sudan, Civic Activists Take On COVID

In South Sudan, Civic Activists Take On COVID

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

By: Nelson Kwaje; Nicholas Zaremba

For South Sudan, COVID-19 is simply the newest plague. The world’s youngest country already faces civil war, repression, displacement, economic collapse, climate change, hunger—even swarming locusts. South Sudan’s people enter the fight against COVID under nearly the worst conditions of human development, and with 39 percent of them displaced by warfare. With a government that has been unable to provide even basic services, South Sudanese must rely on their emerging civil society, and international partnerships, to organize much of their response to the pandemic. Yet COVID now threatens vital international help for such grassroots campaigns.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action; Global Health

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Related Projects

Sudanese and South Sudanese Youth Leaders Program

Sudanese and South Sudanese Youth Leaders Program

Past Project

The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) launched its Sudanese & South Sudanese Youth Leaders program in 2013. The program brings Sudanese and South Sudanese peacebuilders between ages 18 and 35 to Washington, DC to be in residence at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) for four months. The goal of the project is to support youth to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to further their peacebuilding work and position themselves as stronger peacebuilding agents in their communities. USIP will b...

Youth; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

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