By Mick Krever, CNN
Fears of all-out civil war in the world’s newest country, South Sudan, are at an all-time high a week after rebels slaughtered at least 400 people in the town of Bentiu.
“This is the newest country in the world, and it threatens to become one of the bloodiest countries in the world,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, told CNN’s Paula Newton on Wednesday.
A scant three years ago, the country was full of jubilation as it celebrated its independence from Sudan after an internationally brokered referendum.
That changed last year, when the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president of planning a coup; Riek Machar is now the president’s nemesis and a rebel leader.
Conflict between rival groups broke out in December, as a political power struggle erupted into violence. More than a million have fled their homes in what was already, one of the world's poorest nations.
“It’s large-scale, it’s random, and it is afflicting the whole country,” Miliband said. “The danger of genocidal killings is very real.”
“I think that it’s wholly appropriate that you’d draw the link to the terrible events in Rwanda twenty years ago.”
To reduce the conflict to “simply an ethnic conflict,” however, would be an oversimplification, he said.
“That can someone give the idea that this is a deep-rooted and almost inevitable conflict. It’s not. These are people who came together to fight for independence, to gain independence, to have a referendum.”
Up to a million people are now internally displaced in South Sudan, he said. There are 300,000 refugees abroad, and a thousand more leaving every day.
“And of course the man-made disaster of this fighting is compounding by the natural disaster that is looming. Because the rains have come, planting is not taking place.”
The prospect that “food shortages are turned into famine at the end of this year or the beginning of next year are very real.”
Leading an organization that works in many of the world’s top trouble spots – and as a former British foreign secretary – Miliband is very aware of the ‘brink of war’ news overload to which the public is subjected.
“There’s a danger that for your viewers this just sounds like yet another conflict to which there is no end, and in which progress is impossible. South Sudan has shown, actually, that you can make progress. And the danger is that it is all lost.”
South Sudan is home to incredible oil resources, but its pipelines go north, to refineries in Sudan, and this has been the source of much tension between the countries since their split.
But that’s not, Miliband told Newton, a cause of the current violence.
“In significant part the failure to deliver oil revenues to the people and to use it for national reconstruction has been the historic problem in South Sudan,” he said. “But I think we’ve got something more going on here than simply the curse of resources. What we’ve got is a state that was created, but a nation that hasn’t been developed.”
Even the South Sudanese military, he said, is now split between rebel and government factions.
It is going to take a “concerted effort” in Africa to get to grips with the problem, he said.
“We as a humanitarian organization can staunch the dying, and that is what we are trying to do. But we need political engagement to stop the killing.”
“And that’s certainly what I’m calling for in all the engagement that I’m doing. And it’s what I think we need to rally global opinion around.”