No good news out of South Sudan on this Christmas Eve

The World
Displaced people stay in makeshift tents inside Tomping United Nations base

Displaced people stay in makeshift tents inside Tomping United Nations base near Juba international airport, where some 12,000 people from the Nuer tribe have sought refuge at, December 24, 2013.

REUTERS/James Akena

For many across the globe, Christmas Eve is a time of good cheer and fellowship. That's not the case in South Sudan.

The country is going through a week of ethnic violence and fighting. The United Nations has announced that more than 1,000 people have died so far. It also said it has reports of at least three mass graves.

Nick Kulish, a reporter for the New York Times who is in Juba, reports a grim description of the situation at a UN makeshift displaced persons camp in Juba.

He mentioned thousands of people with little shelter, complaining about significant shortages of water and food and people that are too afraid to go back to their homes. Most of these people are from the Nuer ethnic group in Juba, Kulish says.

"They describe situations in which people were being rounded up based on their ethnicity. People were being shot, people being killed. It's a pretty ugly scene," he says.

One man described how he had survived death only because he spoke the Dinka language. Others around him were taken away and killed.

"It's just little things like that, that are making the difference between life and death here and in other parts of the country," Kulish adds.

The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, belongs to the Dinka ethnic group. The rebels are led by Riek Machar, former vice president, who belongs to the Nuer ethnic group.

President Kiir has accused Machar of plotting a coup to overthrow him from power. Kiir removed Machar from his position last July. Machar on the other hand denies trying to seize power.

Sudan suffered a 22-year civil war before South Sudan became independent in 2011.

The peace accord that ended the long civil war with Khartoum in the north was largely brokered by the United States.

US diplomat, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, played a key role in that. He was US special envoy to Sudan at the time of independence in 2011, and knows the key players in the current conflict well. 

"President Kiir is a man who comes out of the army," says Lyman. "A man who fought for independence for some 20 years. His whole career's been in the army. He doesn't have an education outside of that. He's been, up to now, a conciliator," Lyman says.

Riek Machar has had a very different career path. He's a scholar and "a very sophisticated articulate man. But he has a reputation also in South Sudan, because in 1991 he led his forces in a break with the liberation movement and fought a very bloody battle with (it). And that memory lingers," he adds.

The conflict Lyman says, is about power. He says Riek Machar always had ambitions to be the president, but for the majority Dinka, remembering 1991, that was a real problem.

Lyman says Kiir has lost much support this year, over the way he has handled the ambition of Riek Machar, who was thrown out as vice president in July.  

According to Lyman, other political figures have split with Kiir not because they support Machar, but because they would like to see the political system opened up.

The US diplomat believes the crisis in South Sudan could be become an ethnic conflict if it's not managed.

Lyman urges intensified diplomatic effort to bring a quick political solution. He also says the international peacekeeping mission must urgently be reinforced.

"We cannot allow another Srebrenica to happen in South Sudan," he says.