In South Sudan, an Artists’ Movement for Peace Catches Fire
Musicians and actors spur youth to push for an end to years of violent conflict
Jacob Bul Bior, a 29-year-old South Sudanese peace activist, has never known a day when his country wasn’t torn apart by violence. Civil war between northern and southern Sudan; battles between South Sudanese factions; soldiers and rebel fighters raping and executing civilians; a population in flight—such has been the backdrop of his life. By 2016, Bul Bior was tired: tired of war, tired of a resource-rich nation that couldn’t feed itself, tired of elites fomenting tribal animosity. He was weary enough to help birth a movement of young South Sudanese artists known as #Anataban— “I am tired” in Arabic—and to turn the phrase into a national rallying cry.
The mission #Anataban set for itself was simple, if improbable: to use art, creativity and collective action as a way for South Sudanese youth to “build a country where the citizens can enjoy their rights and peacefully co-exist.” But the founding musicians, actors, comedians, writers, fashion designers and visual artists sought to go beyond providing an avenue for South Sudanese youth to express their aspirations. They also sought to cultivate a sense of patriotism, national identity and inter-communal understanding in a country fragmented by political and tribal divisions.
Based in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, #Anataban has spread its message of peace throughout the country with dozens of street theater performances and hundreds of public art displays. It has a significant online presence as well: #Anataban has more than 2,600 followers on Twitter, and its Facebook page has nearly twice that number. The group’s music videos have gotten more than 100,000 views on YouTube. Its innovative approach to advocacy, and the way it has reclaimed civic space to express social concerns, have been covered by international media, including the BBC, VOA, and France24.
Bul Bior, who was a Mandela Washington Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace last fall contributing his expertise on grassroots movements, feels certain that the group is having an impact.
“This past May, I witnessed the power of the arts during #Anataban’s Hagana arts and music festival in Juba” Bul Bior said. “When speakers at the festival asked whose South Sudan it is, the crowd chanted, ‘Hagana!’– ours in Arabic.”
Juba’s First Art Festival
Addressing a crowd of more than 5,000, the festival organizers urged South Sudanese youth (who in 2012 comprised 72 percent of the country’s population) to mobilize for coexistence and to advocate for such goals as the ending of mass killings, sustainable natural resource management, dialogue and reconciliation among adversarial tribes and humanitarian relief, Bul Bior said. The event, which included musical performances, art exhibits, dance acts, poetry and comedy was the first art festival ever held in Juba and occurred amid continuing national violence and division in South Sudan.
The territory that is now South Sudan endured 21 years of civil war with the north that began in 1983 and ended in a negotiated agreement with Sudan in 2005. (An earlier one war with the north lasted from 1955 to 1972.) In 2011, South Sudan gained independence with the backing from the United States, but hopes for a better future were short-lived. In 2013, power struggles among the country’s elites led to the outbreak of a South Sudanese civil war, igniting ethnic tensions initially between people of the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Over the past four years, fighting has spread throughout the country.
With nearly 2 million refugees since the conflict erupted in 2013, South Sudan now has the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis and Africa’s largest refugee emergency since the Rwanda genocide. Another 2 million people have been displaced internally. According to a March 2017 report by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, the largely Dinka military engaged in ethnic cleansing of Nuer and other ethnic groups through dehumanizing hate speech, intentional starvation, attacks against civilians and burning of villages. Rebel groups and local militias routinely rape and execute civilians, while security forces arrest and even kill journalists documenting the reality on the ground. Senior U.N. officials have estimated that well over 50,000 South Sudanese have died during this conflict, but no accurate number has been established. The country’s economy has collapsed amid an inflation rate of 800 percent.
Nonviolent Action Strategy
Against this backdrop, the first phase of #Anataban’s campaigns was launched in Juba in September 2016 and continued until the end of the year. It featured street art in the city, as well as a touring roadshow of theater and musical performances focused on places most affected by the violence and conflict. Music is central to #Anataban’s nonviolent action strategy. For example, the lyrics of its latest music video called “Malesh,” meaning “Sorry,” describe the pain of South Sudanese affected by violence and the regret of those who perpetrate it, while seeking to inspire viewers to pursue nonviolent alternatives.
The first campaign attracted so many followers that the hashtag #Anataban began trending on Twitter, and the phrase became popular among youth frustrated by the status quo in the country.
After a recent theater performance in Juba, many of the attendees—diverse in age, occupations and tribe—said that they had a better grasp of others’ perspectives on the conflict, Bul Bior said. They saw areas of common ground, and they understood how politicians are ethicizing the conflict for political gain. Many pledged to de-align themselves with such leaders.
Last year, #Anataban engaged in its second campaign called #BloodShedFree2017. This campaign utilized traditional and social media to advocate for a permanent ceasefire, security for all regardless of ethnicity, freedom of speech and the rule of law. A ceasefire agreement was signed in December, but has since broken down.
Messages of Hope
The team has traveled from the town of Yei in the southernmost region to Malakal in the north, as well as to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to establish chapters, train volunteers and spread messages of hope through its artistic and mobilizing skills.
Bul Bior believes that the impact of the work can be seen in more youth speaking out in South Sudan and more actors recognizing youth as strong political players in the future of the country. For example, #Anataban’s peace advocacy has been an inspiration for many participants in the budding South Sudan Young Leaders Forum (SSYLF). Launched in early 2017, the Forum is a platform that brings together young leaders from within and outside the country to discuss and advocate for positive change to the ongoing conflict.
As regional leaders in the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) began facilitating a High-Level Revitalization Forum of the 2015 South Sudan peace agreement, #Anataban launched a new campaign called #SouthSudanIsWatching. It seeks to remind negotiators that South Sudanese everywhere will hold the parties accountable for achieving a peaceful and just resolution.
#Anataban plans to stage its original event, the Hagana festival, annually. But Bul Bior described one festival-goer urging an accelerated schedule.
“The Hagana Festival should be a weekly thing,” Bul Bior recalls the young man telling him. “You can see here that all tribes are laughing, sharing light moments, joking and playing together. Whatever brings people together like this should be encouraged.”