Creating a Weapons-Free Zone

By Ashlyn Exely, Nonviolent Peaceforce Area Coordinator in South Sudan and Tiffany Easthom, Nonviolent Peaceforce Country Director in South Sudan

Violent conflict is uncoiling around South Sudan. The political struggle at the heart of the civil war has torn open seams of ethnic divide and created a condition whereby localized conflicts are escalating. Some are directly linked to the national story and some are growing in the shadow of it all. While a quick look at South Sudan suggests a simple conflict, this is far from the reality. The manifestation of a binary relationship between two ethnic groups is sweeping the entire country. This is a complex issue, as are most violent conflicts. Peace and conflict are like nesting dolls. They are stacked within one another, influencing each other and forming the identity of the whole.  Groups, communities, families and individuals all have unique stories and perspectives. While the story in the headline is violence, the goal for the silenced majority is peace and security.

Violent conflict is not a forgone conclusion and Nonviolent Peaceforce’s (NP) unarmed civilian peacekeepers continuously work to prevent violence, before it happens. Many of the conflict-ridden areas our teams work in require proactive attention. In these cases NP teams need to think of innovative ways to enhance the protective environment. One of the methods NP has been using is the creation of weapons-free zones.

NP’s teams are working in areas awash with weapons. Civilians often carry them since they don’t feel that they can rely on the state for protection. There is also little support for actors who traditionally look after civilian protection such as armed forces or the police. For that reason, many people carry weapons because they feel that it is necessary to keep themselves, their families and their assets (especially cows) safe from harm. It is also a catch 22 situation: once some people start carrying weapons, the more likely others are to start carrying weapons. To alleviate this issue, NP has worked together with communities in facilitating the idea of creating weapon-free areas. By doing this everyone in the community agrees to carry no weapons. The recent outbreak of civil war makes this a much more difficult task. However, in some areas the interest in creating a weapon-free zone has increased, as there is now more shared concern about preventing possible violence.

The first weapons-free zone was established in Yirol County, Lakes State in September of 2012. NP selected this area because the team had been working there for some time; additionally, Yirol was one of the places that NP had been fairly successful in disarming actual guns from people’s hands. This is significant because NP had found the majority of fights happening in the entire county did not involve AKs (Kalachnikov), but spears, sticks, and knives; therefore, the death rates in the area were significantly lower than some of our other areas of operation. However, people still felt unsafe enough to openly carry the weapons they were using such as clubs, sticks or spears in town. 

Violence had been erupting both inside the town and outside in the cattle camps due to what people in the area call “girl elopements” (either kidnapping a girl to force her into marriage, or a girl running away with a boy she chooses to marry), cattle raids, or interpersonal conflicts. These conflicts would escalate into clan-wide fights, or fights between families. In comparison to other areas of South Sudan the casualties were fairly low. However, the issue in South Sudan is revenge attacks: if a person is injured or killed, the family will attack somebody they consider “equal.” That person does not have to be from the perceived perpetrator’s family but will be chosen in terms of education, value to the community or other related factors. This means that a family who is completely unrelated to the original conflict can be attacked and the cycle keeps escalating when they attack another person in retaliation who is equal to the victim. This is the type of issue that the Yirol team was successful in breaking during an extremely violent conflict in May 2012. That was the first time the cycle was broken, according to the government and traditional authorities.

After having intervened successfully in a number of conflicts in Yirol, the team realized that this was a situation where NP was extremely valued by the community, the government and the armed forces. The team had also been in the field site long enough to start bringing up these type of sensitive topics. This positioned the team to begin raising the issue with government, chiefs and cattle keepers. Therefore, NP consulted the county commissioner in the area to ask for permission to move forward with the idea. Once he agreed, the team brought together a delegation of chiefs and cattle camp leaders to discuss the project’s feasibility. The team learned at that point weapons had once been taboo in the community. Carrying weapons only became commonplace with insecurity created from the outbreak of civil war and escalating intra-tribal violence. Along with NP’s support, the chiefs and cattle keepers decided to form a weapons-free committee. The NP team sat in with the committee to help implement the idea.

NP commissioned three signs to be placed in strategic areas on the roads into the town. These signs declared the weapons-free zone to newcomers and provided a boundary spanning 20 square kilometers. The committee spent a number of hours over several weeks traveling to all areas of the country to inform its citizens about the zone. The NP team also patrolled the town twice daily in order to monitor the weapons-free zone. They spoke to those who were found with weapons within its boundaries. The staff found the majority of those bringing weapons into the area were from adjoining counties and didn’t know about the project. At the time, the weapons-free zone was a great success. In the past the NP team could count anywhere from 10-20 weapons at any particular time driving through the town; after the weapons-free zone was implemented, NP’s national protection officers living in the area reported that number had gone down to zero.

The NP team was able to create the weapons-free zone and successfully intervene in a number of conflicts. This couldn’t have happened without the trust and acceptance of the community and its key stakeholders. Peace is never achieved using a cookie-cutter model and the most effective projects are those owned by the communities themselves.

As the war reaches the three-month mark, some communities and individuals are doing whatever they possibly can to establish at least small zones of peace.  In the face of impossible odds, some communities are asking for help to set up new weapons-free zones. The NP team is making every effort to help make this happen.

The weapons-free zone in this area continues to be operational and successful, despite a heavy military presence within the state. While a high number of civilians in Lakes State have re-armed themselves due to the insecurity, the NP team has seen that this has not been the case within the weapons-free zone. The zone continues to hold up despite insecurity and uncertainty. Yirol residents continue to report that they feel safe in town, despite the fact that rebel forces moved fairly close to Yirol Town in late January 2014. In fact, a number of internally displaced persons have moved into Yirol because of its continued stability during the conflict.


Date Published: 
Monday, March 31, 2014