KAPOETA, South Sudan – Loka John sits down on a blue plastic chair in the Singaita 88.3 FM newsroom. The 23-year-old sets his notebook on the table in front of him and flips it open to an empty page. He scrawls a few notes with his pen.
The news meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning. John pitches his story idea to the four other reporters, news manager, and journalism trainer.
“I attended a meeting yesterday led by the governor and deputy governor over the conflict near my boma [village] in Budi County,” John said.
Over the last month 56 people have been killed, and dozens of homes have been burnt to the ground, according to Community Development Support Service, a local organization working in the area.
Toposa and Didinga are the two main ethnic groups sharing this stretch of land, in South Sudan’s southeast, that extends from the town of Kapoeta all the way to the Kenyan border. In the Singaita radio newsroom, named after the seasonal river connecting these communities, both groups are represented.
All five Singaita FM reporters, two Didinga and three Toposa, sit around the table sharing phone numbers of local officials and residents to interview.
“We used to graze our [Didinga] cattle side-by-side and share water sources with Toposa,” John added.
Cattle raids are common in South Sudan, with one ethnic group or clan stealing cows from each other. This often leads to reprisal attacks, revenge killings, and sometimes kidnappings.
A history of conflict
South Sudan’s 20-month-long civil war and slow implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement (Agreement on the resolution of conflict in the Republic of South Sudan) by President Salva Kiir’s SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) and Riek Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition has led to a collapsing economy.
The transitional government of national unity, as stipulated in the peace agreement, is now trying to lead South Sudan back from the brink of failed state status, but fighting rages on in rural areas.
As the economy continues its downward spiral, young men still seek cattle to pay dowry, or bride price. Getting married is a tradition most young South Sudanese men feel the need to partake in, at any cost.
“It’s a part of our [Toposa] culture. If you haven’t raided cattle, it means you are not a man,” said Singaita FM reporter Lotiira Joseph. “After a successful raid, you receive a nickname from the color of the bulls stolen. This is tradition.”
Joseph, 26, goes on to say that he’s thankful his father sent him to a mission school as a boy when his uncle wanted him sent to a cattle camp, where South Sudanese boys learn to use weapons to protect cows.
“In school we learned the Bible. The ten commandments state thou shall not kill or steal,” he added.
In rural areas there is little to no access to education or economic opportunity. This leads young men to attempt to steal cattle, as livestock prices continue to skyrocket, rather than purchase it legitimately at the market.
“An increase in dowry causes these men to raid cattle. If there’s hunger or debt that needs to be paid, this also leads to violence. We need to stop this,” said Singaita FM reporter Mary Apoo.
“There is no difference between Didinga and Toposa in terms of culture. When young men want to get married they need cows!” she exclaimed.
Reconciliation on the radio
Mary, 25, picks up her Nokia phone to call Toposa and Didinga community leaders. She says by inviting them into Singaita FM to discuss the violence and the need for peace on-air, she’s acting the part of a mediator.
There is growing concern at the state level about the need to start a peace and reconciliation conference. According to officials, the aim will be to bring together Toposa and Didinga to discuss recent events and engage in a peaceful dialogue.
If peace and reconciliation works at a local level, it may be replicated on a national scale. Chapter five of the peace agreement calls for the establishment of a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing within six months of the formation of the unity government.
As communities in the greater Eastern Equatoria region grapple with decades of conflict, a need to discuss accountability and provide justice to South Sudanese of all ethnic backgrounds must begin immediately.
John gathers his notebook, audio recorder and headphones. He leaves the newsroom to head out in to the community to report on the peace efforts for Singaita FM.
Singaita 88.3 FM broadcasts daily from Kapoeta South. It’s signal reaches parts of the surrounding Kapoeta East, North and Budi Counties, where cattle raids continue with impunity. Singaita FM is the newest member of Internews’ The Radio Community, a network of radio stations across South Sudan.