The two leaders at the center of the brutal civil war in South Sudan, which plunged the world’s youngest nation into a humanitarian crisis, have met face to face for peace talks for the first time in several years.
South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, met Wednesday night with his former vice president, Riek Machar, who leads the country’s main opposition forces, in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Their talks were expected to continue on Thursday.
South Sudan’s civil war has dragged on for years. Fighting erupted in December 2013 between forces loyal to Mr. Kiir and his Dinka ethnic group and another faction loyal to Mr. Machar and the ethnic Nuer. The clashes quickly devolved into a full-fledged civil war that fractured the nation along ethnic lines just two years after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
Now, South Sudan is in shambles. The conflict has displaced millions, demolished the economy of a nation that was already one of the poorest in the world and left many people without reliable access to food. Previous cease-fires have largely been ignored, and fighting has cut off parts of the country from emergency aid.
This year is expected to be the worst yet for food security, with millions potentially facing acute malnutrition. The deteriorating conditions have driven foreign governments and international agencies to press the leaders to return to the negotiating table.
A brief power-sharing arrangement between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar in 2016 did not hold, and fighting soon erupted in the capital city, Juba. Mr. Machar fled the capital, and then the country, as the initial peace deal fell apart. Recently Mr. Machar had been living under house arrest in South Africa.
Last month, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution giving South Sudan’s warring sides a deadline of June 30 to reach a peace deal or face sanctions.
Janardhan Rao, the South Sudan country director for the aid group Mercy Corps, said humanitarian organizations were hopeful that the meeting between the leaders would pave the way for peace. He said the threat of international sanctions combined with the resolve of the South Sudanese people to see the conflict end had given momentum to the talks.
“The two leaders at the highest level have agreed to come together, and that is significant,” Mr. Rao said. “And what we are seeing, there is a groundswell, there is a level of frustration and desperation and there is a lot of push from civil society organizations. They said, ‘Do not come back without peace.’”
But the work that humanitarian groups like his have done in South Sudan has been undone repeatedly because of the fighting.
The South Sudan Civil Society Forum — a coalition of dozens of South Sudanese organizations — has been instrumental in galvanizing support for an end to the conflict.
The group wrote an open letter to the two leaders before the meeting urging them to use the opportunity to “reach genuine and sustainable peace.”
“We call on you to demonstrate leadership at this critical moment, rise to the occasion, reconcile and save our people and country from further destruction and shame,” the letter said. “In so doing, you will save your legacy in the history of our country. We, the citizens, are watching!”
A similar campaign organized by the coalition — #SouthSudanIsWatching — has encouraged citizens to hold the government and opposition leaders accountable. Many shared their views on social media sites.
The talks are sponsored by Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a coalition of countries in the Horn of Africa region. The two South Sudanese leaders were joined by President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, who traveled to Ethiopia to take part.
South Sudan has reached a breaking point, some aid groups say, as fighting has forced them out of part of the country. More than 100 aid workers, mostly South Sudanese, have been killed in the country since the conflict began.
Elysia Buchanan, a policy adviser on South Sudan for the aid group Oxfam, said it had become increasingly difficult for aid to reach those in need, even as conditions became more dire.
“It’s clear to all on the ground that things are getting worse; needs have never been higher,” Ms. Buchanan said. “I think today there is a feeling of excitement and anticipation — and I hope it won’t be squandered. I hope that today in Addis there is a sense that they are not only negotiating the cease-fire or power-sharing, but that they are also negotiating an end to the hunger and suffering of millions of South Sudanese.”
But even if a peace agreement can be reached, there will be a long road to recovery in South Sudan. War crimes — some of which could amount to crimes against humanity — have been documented on both sides. With some of the most systematic and widespread offenses being committed by forces loyal to Mr. Kiir’s government, it is unclear whether the perpetrators will ever be held accountable.
For now, aid groups are focusing on the immediate needs of civilians, a mission that will face fewer obstacles if the fighting can be stopped.
“I think peace is a precursor,” Mr. Rao said. “It’s not the end of it all, it’s just the starting point.”