On New Year’s day, I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Entebbe, Uganda. Formally dressed members of the South Sudanese diaspora crowded the propeller plane alongside businessmen from Uganda, Kenya and South India.
We were headed to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on one of three different flights that leaves for the country every weekday. Arriving at the ramshackle airport, we shuffled into four different lines housed in a makeshift structure before entering a scrimmage to secure our bags.
South Sudan has again been in the spotlight with warnings of a looming genocide voiced by everyone from the former US Secretary of State John Kerry to most recently, the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Yet, leaving Entebbe that Sunday, the banality of our departure scene made me believe that such ominous warnings were mere hyperbole. I was right and wrong. South Sudan is not heading towards a genocide. But the spectre of violence is omnipresent, even as it resists categorisation within easily comprehensible notions of genocide.
Talk of genocide, in fact, serves to obfuscate more prevalent forms of violence that are slowly squelching the country’s freedom dreams. Debate about whether violence in South Sudan is genocidal or not echoes debates in Darfur in the early 2000s. Those frenzied debates produced only inaction, as the international community wilted in the face of the complex configuration of internal and external political forces that defined the fighting.
Stories of daily violence and insecurity
During my week in Juba, I spoke with numerous members of the local Equatorian community. They recounted stories of daily violence and insecurity at the hands of government soldiers.
One middle-class woman told me of a domestic worker being raped at gunpoint by army soldiers in the daytime. A young man spoke of being beaten and robbed by soldiers twice in the past month. Another claimed to have lost his father, mother and brother at the hands of government supporters.
Such violence has become normalised in many parts of South Sudan. In July, fighting broke out between forces loyal to Vice President Riek Machar and the government, controlled by the former rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), setting off the latest crisis.
For three days, armed groups fought for control of the city. Hundreds of civilians were raped and killed as government supporters went door to door searching for members of the Nuer community who share their ethnic origins with the former vice president.
So why not refer to this situation as genocide? If you speak with government officials and local community members, it is surprisingly not the government that employs genocidal talk. Rather, it is members of the Equatorian community who speak of expulsion and extermination of government forces.
Talk of genocide simultaneously insulates us from the more protracted, and often bewilderingly complex low-level violence that has already destroyed much of the country.
Though forced to hide in their homes for three days as the fighting continued in the streets of Juba, the local Equatorian population was not the target of either side, at least initially. Since then, however, as many Nuer have fled, it is the Equatorians who have come to view the Dinka-dominated SPLA as a conquering army to be expunged.
Talk of a revenge is omnipresent. I spoke with a member of a local defence militia, one of many groups being organised independently by young Equatorian men. He detailed for me the plans being put in place – weapons stockpiled, oaths sworn, women and children moved across the border to refugee camps or private homes in northern Uganda.
Later, I travelled by road across that border and was told about camps swollen with women and children while the young men return to Juba to protect their lands. These young men believe that Machar, currently under house arrest in South Africa, will return to fight in March and they are preparing to join the fray.
Even educated professionals speak openly about their bias against the Dinka people, refusing to rent their homes to members of the community, citing colonial-era racial anthropology to justify their beliefs.
Talk of genocide
“Genocide” prepares us for violence that is spectacular. It goads us into believing that when confronted with extreme evil, we will have no choice, but to react.
But talk of genocide simultaneously insulates us from the more protracted, and often bewilderingly complex, low-level violence that has already destroyed much of the country. This violence seems to be acceptable, as it does not seem to surpass our threshold for outrage.
Talk of genocide also has a deeper impact. It forces us to divide a conflict into innocent victims and vicious perpetrators. But what is the value of such neat binaries when almost every community can speak the language of victimhood?
I refer not to the layers of oppression that almost all South Sudanese know intimately from years of fighting the government in Khartoum, but the recurrent and diffused violence between South Sudanese communities that has come to define independence.
This is a logic that the SPLA government is eager to embrace, pointing out that even as the international community rushes to condemn its behaviour, it has faced violent challenges to its rule that any legitimate government must quell.
As one defender of the government, Taban Abel Aguek, succinctly put it, “Fighting negative forces does not amount to genocide.” Simultaneously, Equatorians, by and large, are loathe to embrace the language of victimhood, speaking instead about their willingness and ability to rid their land of the Dinka “oppressors” forever.
But words are never enough. What is needed in South Sudan is not continued debate about what to call the violence, but an accurate assessment of the relative strength and motivations of the belligerents.
Even as the SPLA continues to dominate the military, it faces a number of organised challenges, not only from Machar, but also from other militias that have entered the security void.
This diffusion of military strength is unlikely to produce a clear victor in the battles that lie ahead. Nor is the conflict likely to turn genocidal, as all sides have the capacity to fight back.
Yet, even as genocide may be avoided, civilians in South Sudan will continue to bear the costs of the prolonged bloodshed.
Zachariah Mampilly is the author of Rebel Rulers and Africa Uprising. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Vassar College. Follow him on Twitter @ras_karya
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.