KAJO KEJI, — South Sudan opposition commander Moses Lokujo flipped through his notes, explaining international humanitarian law to an attentive group of senior officers.
“Soldiers are not supposed to kill someone who’s not an enemy,” he said.
“And if a civilian is walking with a goat it doesn’t mean you can steal it just because you have a gun.”
Just months ago, such training seemed implausible in a country that was embroiled in a five-year civil war that killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions.
Since a fragile peace deal was signed in September, however, South Sudan’s previously warring parties have been trying to rebuild trust in some of the areas hardest-hit by the war.
On a trip this month to government and opposition-held territories in Kajo Keji in Central Equatoria state, The Associated Press met with both sides who said the reconciliation of former rivals President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar was the reason peace efforts appear to be working on the ground.
“If these two have united, why can’t we?” said John Camillo, deputy commander for government troops in Kajo Keji.
For the first time, 10 opposition soldiers were stationed in the government barracks as part of a makeshift soldier swap. Government soldiers walked through town, unarmed and in civilian clothes, seemingly unconcerned by the possibility of attack.
“There’s really been a total change,” said Abiggo Manson, field officer for the Support for Peace and Education Development Program, a local aid group. Waving to soldiers on a motorbike, Manson said he never would have done that in September because suspicions at the time remained high.
The peace efforts continue to be undermined by violence, however. In October, government soldiers attacked the opposition in Kajo Keji. More recently, the opposition has accused the government of not withdrawing its troops from opposition territory as stipulated by the peace agreement.
Renowned as South Sudan’s breadbasket, the Equatoria region was devastated by fighting after renewed clashes erupted in the country’s capital, Juba, in July 2016. Desolate, damaged houses line Kajo Keji’s eerily quiet streets.
Vandalized shops, robbed of their windows, roofs and doors, are concealed by overgrown brush.
Kajo Keji county has been cut off from aid for more than two years due to repeated denials of humanitarian access by the warring sides, according to an internal humanitarian report seen by AP. The county lacks food, shelter and water.
“The government doesn’t have resources to bring people back,” said Luka Yombek, Kajo Keji’s former commissioner who left office in October.
In November, a United Nations-led humanitarian convoy drove from Juba to Kajo Keji for the first time since 2016 to assess its needs. While the U.N. said it plans to provide assistance where needed, it is “contingent on having safe space to operate,” said Andrea Noyes, head of the U.N. humanitarian office for the country.
In town, only a handful of people have trickled back, with the majority of civilians too wary to return.
“We’re still waiting to see if the peace deal is a real one,” said Francis Ladu, one of more than 35,000 people sheltering in the Korijo displaced persons’ camp in the opposition-held part of Kajo Keji on the Ugandan border.
Life in the camp is hard. With no clean water, people are forced to drink from muddy ponds.
Ladu said he walks six hours into Uganda several times a week to work odd jobs to make money to buy food for his family.
Intently watching his 2-month-old twin girls, he said it ultimately doesn’t matter where they live.
“Going there and staying here is all the same at the moment. The government can’t provide for us,” he said, hanging his head. “People are suffering, they’re just surviving.”