Luxury hotel offers no comfort for S Sudan misery

2014-01-23 16:33
Displaced South Sudanese citizens wait at a Sudanese border checkpoint in Joda, where Sudan's White Nile state meets the South's Upper Nile, after fleeing battles between rebel and government forces. (Ashraf Shazly, AFP)

Displaced South Sudanese citizens wait at a Sudanese border checkpoint in Joda, where Sudan's White Nile state meets the South's Upper Nile, after fleeing battles between rebel and government forces. (Ashraf Shazly, AFP)

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Addis Ababa - As war rages in South Sudan, government and rebel peace delegates have spent weeks holed up in luxury in neighbouring Ethiopia, a far cry from the thousands of dead and half million homeless back home.

Despite weeks of all-expenses paid hospitality at the opulent Sheraton Hotel - where rooms start at $450 per night - and much mediation by diplomats from the region and across the world, haggling over the price of peace drags on.

"It's an awful juxtaposition," commented Ahmed Soliman, Africa researcher at the UK-based think tank Chatham House.

"Partially, it's a reflection of what has led us to this position in the first place, the fact that internal elite fighting within South Sudan has enabled a violent conflict to spread," he said, voicing frustration with the pace of the talks.

"It's certainly time to start thinking about South Sudanese and the country of South Sudan."

The negotiations, involving delegates loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition members loosely aligned with ex-vice president Riek Machar, began at the start of the month but have made little or no progress.

The rebels are refusing to sign a ceasefire without the release of 11 allies who were arrested when fighting began on 15 December, while Kiir has resisted diplomat pressure to make a goodwill gesture, insisting instead they should stand trial for allegedly trying to oust him.

On the ground, both sides have insisted on their commitment to the peace process while sending their troops into all-out war marked by reports of unspeakable brutality - including the forced recruitment of child soldiers, massacres and gang rapes.

No rush

Meanwhile in the Sheraton hotel, the mood between the rival parties has remained cordial, providing for an atmosphere strangely devoid of any urgency.

Delegates have been spending long hours in hotel lobbies sipping pricey coffees and eating some of the most expensive meals on offer in the Ethiopian capital, with tensions also eased by the easy-listening repertoire of the hotel's grand piano player.

The East African regional bloc IGAD, which is mediating the talks, is picking up the hotel bill - with foreign donors including the European Union also helping out.

The rival teams appeared to strike common ground last week, when they complained that the venue for their discussions had been temporarily shifted to the dance floor of Sheraton's Gaslight nightclub in order to make room for a visiting Japanese delegation.

Sources close to the slow-moving talks said some delegates were unhappy that the space was too noisy, too spacious and poorly-lit - even though the talks are taking place outside the nightclub's usual opening hours.

Amid concerns over mounting hotel bills, this week they were shifted to a newly-built hotel across town where an average room costs $130 per night, less than a third of what Sheraton charges.

Mediators have also hinted that unless a ceasefire deal is reached in the coming days, they may have to adjourn the talks since most hotels are full next week for an African Union summit.

South Sudanese lawyer David Deng described the entire process as "perverse".

"There is sort of a perverse dynamic around talks like these: people are taken care of and put up in a very comfortable setting and given very big per diems, and that can actually discourage an agreement from happening," he said.

"The fact that they are comfortable in these hotels while other people are suffering on the ground for their senseless war I think just shows the disconnect that there is between the political and military leadership and the people," he said.

Read more on:    au  |  salva kiir  |  south sudan  |  east africa
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