ADDIS ABABA , Ethiopia -- About 570 miles (915 kilometers) from the epicenter of Africa's latest conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives over the past three weeks, dozens of South Sudanese, Ethiopian and Western diplomats are gathered in a luxury hotel in Ethiopia's capital city. The delegates are on a mission of peace, spending hours every day meeting in closed boardrooms, shaking hands in the hallways and exchanging updates in a plush lobby dominated by a massive Christmas tree.
Their focus is on the crisis in South Sudan, sparked on Dec. 15 when an armed clash set off a ripple effect from the capital city of Juba. The delegates began arriving in Addis Ababa last weekend, but preliminary talks -- to settle administrative matters of agenda and protocol -- kept both sides busy until they finally met face-to-face for the first time on Monday.
These talks represent the best hopes yet of solving a worsening humanitarian crisis just over the border, where ongoing violence and massive displacement are threatening the future of the world's youngest country.
The world is waiting. Either the negotiations will lay the foundations for peace in a country on the brink, or South Sudan, the world's youngest country with the third-largest store of oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, risks slipping into full-blown chaos.
South Sudan officially gained independence from Sudan in January 2011. But since then, it has struggled with underdevelopment, endemic poverty and ethnic tensions. It has also suffered economically due to disagreements with its northern neighbor, which has the pipelines needed to get South Sudan's abundant crude to market. This year, President Salva Kiir's decision to sack his cabinet, including his Vice President Riek Machar, was perceived by some as a threat to political stability in the young nation.
The current crisis began when clashes broke out between members of the presidential guard at a barracks in Juba. The violence spread rapidly, evolving into a more complicated conflict as the country's two largest ethnic groups -- the Dinka, to which Kiir belongs, and the Nuer, Machar's group -- began engaging in tit-for-tat killing and pillaging.
Following the initial outbreak, the government detained 11 of Machar's supporters in Juba, where they remain. They include Pagan Amum, the former secretary general of the ruling party SPLM; South Sudan independence negotiator and former Minister of Cabinet Affairs Deng Alor Kuol; and former Minister of Justice John Luk Jok.
What actually happened from Dec. 15 onward is a matter of contention. The government claims that Machar and his supporters were attempting a coup, but some opposition members suspect foul play, arguing that the detainees must be released in order to participate in the Addis Ababa talks. Members of the international community, including the European Union and the United States, South Sudan's largest aid donor, have also urged Kiir to release the prisoners.
Here in Addis Ababa, Salva Kiir's delegation is led by former Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial. The opposition is headed by Taban Deng Gai, a former governor of Unity State. Members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a coalition of eight countries in the Horn of Africa, are mediating the talks. The negotiators have two main items on the agenda: a cessation of hostilities and the status of the detainees in Juba. Resolving these issues will clear the way for further discussions on establishing monitoring mechanisms for a ceasefire, and coming up with a longer-term political solution to the crisis.
The detainees have been a major point of contention for both sides, with the opposition insisting on their release. Addressing journalists Sunday ahead of the formal negotiations, Michael Makuei, South Sudan's information minister and a spokesperson for the government delegation, argued that releasing the prisoners would be out of the question, and criticized some members of the international community for failing to support Kiir on this issue."There are perceptions within the international community that it was not a coup. Then what was it? For that matter I think we would have to consult our dictionary to tell us what constitutes a coup," he said.
"It has gone down to a rebellion," he added. "And we are being told to negotiate with the rebels! But any rebels who have fallen in our hands will have [to] answer why he or she decided to take up arms against a democratically elected government."
But the opposition has other ideas about what constitutes a coup, why the detainees were arrested in the first place and what it means to be a rebel -- after all, many the delegates representing Machar here in Ethiopia still consider themselves members of Kiir's party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The SPLM was originally led by John Garang, a charismatic hero of the independence struggle who died in a 2005 helicopter crash. This week his son, Mabior Garang, is in Addis Ababa to participate in the negotiations.
"There was a shoot-out in the presidential guard [on Dec. 15], but a coup is a debatable thing," Garang told IBTimes. "Later on politicians did get arrested, even though no military commander was arrested in connection with a coup, so we claim on our side that the politicians are being framed, and that they are political prisoners."
Kiir might be refusing to release the prisoners, added Garang, because "if they were out, it would nullify the government argument that this is a Nuer-Dinka thing. It is the government which is pushing that angle, but it is not so. This is an uprising of the people of South Sudan. Once these people are released it will show the true national character of the uprising."
The two sides may never agree -- at least publicly -- about what happened on Dec. 15, despite its implications for the ongoing talks in Addis. But both delegation teams are deeply concerned about the humanitarian crises in their home country, and this has been a driving force for the negotiations.
Thousands have people have been killed in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands are now displaced. There have also been reports of recruitment of child soldiers, widespread looting and rapes. Humanitarian organizations are struggling to supply shelter, food and medical supplies to those in need, including the tens of thousands who have sought refuge in United Nations base camps.
"In a country of war, it is the parents who bury their sons and daughters, while in a country of peace, it is the sons and daughters who bury their parents," said Seyoum Mesfin, former Ethiopian foreign minister and IGAD's special envoy at the talks. "We witness today that again parents are burying their sons and daughters. This is painful."
One mediator expressed concern that a top-down approach to ending the hostilities might be challenging, since the political conflict has stirred up tensions between Dinka and Nuer communities all across the country. But a delegation member for the opposition side, who was not authorized to speak to the press, said that Machar does have effective control over opposition forces, and that the Addis Ababa delegation is in touch with militants on a daily basis. He said defectors are regularly calling Machar and other opposition leaders to profess their allegiance.
Garang argues that this leadership has kept the ethnic tensions from getting even worse, noting that the original outburst of violence in Juba was perpetrated by state forces. "Dr. Riek Machar and Taban Deng, who had run for their lives from Juba, found themselves in the middle of this uprising," he said. "This is already a humanitarian catastrophe, but had they not been there to direct the anger of this uprising, the revenge killings would have been out of hand and it would have been complete destruction."
"Of course they can't convince everybody," he added. "Some people might have taken things into their own hands because of emotions, but it's nothing compared to the state-sponsored killings that occurred in Juba after the shoot-out of the presidential guards."
Some observers have expressed doubt about the efficacy of the ongoing talks, especially since it took several days for the delegates to get past the procedural issues and meet face-to-face. But members of both delegations have downplayed those concerns, expressing confidence in their abilities to stop the atrocities on the ground -- despite complaining about the intransigence of the other side.
"I hope that we will be in a position to stop this death which is happening in our country, to stop this displacement and all the atrocities that are happening today in South Sudan," said Makuei Luoth of the government delegation. "We are here to assure you that we have started the process and we are optimistic that we will end it peacefully."