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.

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