Opposition leader Riek Machar has returned to South Sudan for the first time since fleeing more than two years ago, to take part in a nationwide peace celebration.
“I came only to confirm to people that I am for peace. The past is gone. We have opened a new chapter for peace and unity,” said Mr Machar, speaking in both Arabic and English to several thousand at the event.
He assured South Sudan’s citizens that peace was in the hearts of all members of the opposition and those attending have seen peace with their own eyes.
Mr Machar promised to strengthen government institutions, address corruption and injustice and said that the new government would uphold accountability.
Under the peace deal signed on September 12, he will again serve as a vice president in President Salva Kiir’s government.
This will be the third time the two men have tried to work together since the country erupted into civil war in 2013. The last attempt failed when fighting broke out in the capital Juba in July 2016 and Mr Machar escaped the country on foot.
He is joined in Juba for the peace celebrations by South Sudan’s other opposition groups as well as regional heads of state including the leaders of Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Egypt.
Five years of fighting in South Sudan has crippled the country, displacing millions and killing almost 400,000 people through violence and disease, according to a recent report.
The latest peace deal has been met with scepticism by the international community, including the US, Norway and the UK, the troika that ushered South Sudan into independence in 2011.
Since the deal was signed six weeks ago it has been criticised for slow implementation, missed deadlines and continued ceasefire violations.
While security concerns remain surrounding Mr Machar’s return, he has come back to give confidence to the population and put more pressure on the government to implement the peace process, opposition spokesman Mabior Garang de Mabior said.
At least one South Sudan expert says Mr Machar’s return is a positive step towards peace.
Augustino Ting Mayai, researcher at the Sudd Institute, said: “This indicates South Sudanese leaders’ readiness to implement the agreement.
That President Kiir invited Dr Riek ahead of the implementation schedule and Dr Riek responding positively, in particular, offers reason to be hopeful. I think that this shows a genuine desire by the leaders to end the conflict.”
But some locals in Juba are more wary of his return.
Radio personality Eva Lopa said: “We’ll feel peace when we have three meals a day, when we can afford basic needs, when we can put our children and siblings through school, when we are paid our salaries at the end of each month, when we are no longer being attacked by ‘unknown gunmen’.
“That would be peace. Machar’s coming home is just that, he’s coming home. I’m not sure what else it means.”