By Inna Lazareva
JUBA, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A group of
artists and musicians in South Sudan is on a mission – to
mobilise young people across the country through music, graffiti
and poetry to help bring peace to the war-torn nation.
In 2011, the streets of the capital Juba were full of
revellers, celebrating the world’s newest nation.
But hope for the future has soured after more than four
years of civil war, with about a third of the country’s 12
million people forced from their homes by conflict.
Arts movement AnaTaban, or “I am tired” in Arabic, is trying
to address anger over failed promises and suppression of
independent voices by advocating for peace and unity among young
people through media they like – rap music, slam poetry, and
“As South Sudanese we are branded to be violent people but
we are being unconventional in a very intentional way,” said
poet Ayak Chol Deng Alak, 32, who helped set up AnaTaban in Juba
in 2016. The group is now aiming to spread nationwide.
“We have seen conventional activism failing. If it is for
our country, we might as well get the information out. It
doesn’t really matter how, as long as we are not hurting anyone
in the process,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Born in an Ethiopian refugee camp where treatment from an
aid agency saved her life, Alak is now a doctor and published
poet in South Sudan, but her campaigning has come with risks.
Alak and other AnaTaban members say they have been
interrogated, their cars confiscated, and some live apart from
their families who have moved abroad for safety.
While being interviewed by two Thomson Reuters Foundation
journalists at her apartment in Juba, Alak was taken outside for
questioning by a man who wanted to know who her guests were.
South Sudan’s government did not respond to requests for
comment on its treatment of AnaTaban members. Previously the
government has denied blocking anyone’s freedom of speech.
South Sudan plunged into conflict in 2013 after clashes
between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former
deputy Riek Machar deteriorated into a military confrontation.
Tens of thousands have died in fighting between the two sides.
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has reported that
more than 100 activists and journalists have been killed,
arrested, detained, fired or censored since mid-2016, with
newspapers closed, often by the government.
UNMISS was only able to verify violations in
government-controlled areas because insecurity and movement
restrictions hindered work in opposition-held territory.
Talks in Ethiopia last month to revive a failed 2015 peace
pact and end the war broke up without a deal.
Manasseh Mathiang, a musician and another founding member of
AnaTaban, said it was crucial to engage young people in the
drive to forge a better country for the future.
Almost 90 percent of South Sudanese are under the age of 45,
according to a 2008 census. But illiteracy tops 70 percent, U.N.
figures show, and unemployment is rife.
“The youth of South Sudan for so long have not had the
opportunity or the platform to speak and to express themselves,”
Mathiang told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the group’s
headquarters in Juba.
“We’ve got to let the youth know they have the power – they
have power to speak and they have power to change the narrative
… We’d like to see AnaTaban in all the states in South Sudan,”
Peter Biar, chairman of the South Sudan Young Leaders
Forum, based in Juba, said AnaTaban was one of a growing number
of youth groups – both in rebel and government-controlled
territory – striving for a better tomorrow.
“The only change that is possible in this country is a
non-violent change – and this is what we are going to attempt,”
said Biar, who works to bring together academics, church and
youth leaders to advocate for peace and development.
Biar said AnaTaban has given hope to disillusioned young
people in the capital through art and music.
AnaTaban’s first music video, posted on YouTube in August
2016, featuring artists, slam poets and activists, is dedicated
“to all those we have lost in this senseless war and to all
those who are still here and are tired enough to make the
changes we need”.
The group’s social media campaigns are quickly shared, and
it has branches in neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
Striking AnaTaban murals adorn the grey walls of streets and
buildings in central Juba, quoting Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro
and the late John Garang, revered as the father of the nation.
In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, another AnaTaban founder, Jon
Pen de Ngong, meets regularly with South Sudanese activists to
collaborate on political writings and poems.
The former child soldier said he fled to Kenya after
colleagues were abducted, poisoned and killed. He received a
death threat – a dog’s jawbone with a bullet lodged inside.
“We thought we had a country … This not what we fought
for,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The exiles hope a peace agreement will be reached so that
they can “go back and claim our rights as South Sudanese”, said
Jackline Sadrack of AnaTaban’s Uganda chapter.
Despite the failure to reach a peace deal so far, South
Sudan’s youth remain hopeful.
“I have this opportunity through my music to play a role in
speaking on behalf of my people and what we desire as a people.
Most of my songs are about how I would want peace in my
country,” said Mathiang.
(Reporting by Inna Lazareva; additional reporting by Shanshan
Chen; Editing by Megan Rowling, Katy Migiro and Belinda
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