How the world's
dreams to despair
“Where were you when South Sudan became independent?”
It was a simple enough question posed to a young woman standing with other women and children outside a collection of mud huts known as tukuls in the northwestern town of Aweil, the midday sun beating down.
“Which independence?” was the rapid-fire reply. “Second independence or third independence? The first independence is the 9th of July.”
That’s the way it is in South Sudan. The country’s not even six years old but already has a history of false starts. The second and third independence days she’s talking about, I eventually ascertain, refer to peace deals signed and abandoned in the years since July 9, 2011.
That’s when Africa’s youngest nation officially gained independence from Sudan after an overwhelming majority of its people voted in favour of separation in a referendum.
The vote was held six years after a 2005 peace agreement ended a two-decade-long civil war in which an estimated 1.5 million southern Sudanese lost their lives in a struggle to break free from years of perceived discrimination by Khartoum and its mainly Muslim rulers.
The woman answering questions about her young country is named Leah Deng. She’s 23 and says she makes a living working “hand to mouth.”
Many women earn money by gathering firewood and selling it or seeking out water and putting it in plastic bottles to sell.
Deng would like to study to become a midwife. She’s not afraid of dreaming big, but her dreams no longer rest in South Sudan. Like so many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who returned to their homeland in the south with such great optimism after independence, she is desperate to leave again.
“I would like to go to the U.S.,” she says. “If I get a scholarship, I can go any time, and I would not come back because of these conditions.”
South Sudan descended into its own civil war in December 2013, just two years after it was created.
Aweil is in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, one of the more stable regions in the country, and yet people still struggle with enormous deprivation.
UN aid agencies say 60 per cent of inhabitants are living in “emergency or catastrophic-like” conditions, and they fear the region could become the country’s next declared famine zone.
“It’s considered a peaceful area, but it has been seriously affected indirectly [by the conflict],” says Joseph Mamer Manot, assistant bishop of the Wanyiok area diocese.
He sees people’s suffering up close and personal every Sunday, when his parishioners crowd together on wooden benches in a breeze-block church with a dirt floor.
“There is too much hunger in South Sudan,” he says. “People return to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Some have run away because of famine. Some have run away because they don’t see [the] future of South Sudan.
“We didn’t expect that we would go back to conflict."
Aweil is a frontier town of about 35,000 people. It relies on trade routes north to Sudan and south to other parts of South Sudan. But the northern border is often closed, and supply lines from former breadbasket states around the capital Juba are broken by fighting.
There is just one hospital in the town serving three states. Two broken-down ambulances sit in its parking lot, leaving just one to help those in need.
But there’s no medicine for those who do make it to the hospital, say the doctors, whose salaries often go unpaid for weeks and sometimes months on end.
Clinics serving the surrounding countryside have been closing as workers strike for their wages, increasing the burden on the aid agencies operating in the area.
The picture of hunger in the northwest comes clearly into focus at a clinic run by Première Urgence Internationale at a way station about a two-hour drive from Aweil.
Mothers dressed in their best walk for hours, sometimes days, to bring their children to the clinic.
Health-care workers weigh and measure the little ones, checking for signs of malnutrition.
Alakir Kuot was in a room reserved for the most serious cases. She’d walked for two hours with her one-year-old daughter, Hoi Makuei, to reach the centre.
Kuot was trying to feed her child fortified milk using a plastic syringe. She says they simply don’t have enough food at home.
Subsistence farming isn’t an option, she says, because it takes too much time and effort for the meagre return when there’s not enough rain.
Instead, she collects and sells the long grass used to weave the rooftops on the round tukuls, but it’s not enough to buy sorghum at the market.
“The prices in the market, they are going up every day and every night,” she says. “The situation is actually really bad.”
In Aweil’s market, if you see someone selling goods with a palm frond attached it means they’re selling off their personal household goods, usually a sign they’re preparing to leave.
Aduk Atienne, a 20-year-old mother of four, walked through the streets carrying her cooking pots on her head, palm frond attached at the top. She’s trying to earn enough for bus fare for her family. She says they’ll go north to Sudan, if possible.
“It’s bad here. I don’t expect anything to get better soon.”
In the capital, Juba, about 800 kilometres to the south over broken roads, there are two things that will make people scatter from the streets.
The first is the head-bending downpours that come with the seasonal rains, turning shanty-town roads into rivers of mud in a matter of seconds.
And the second is rumours.
One weekend this past April, word was South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, was facing internal pressure to resign — maybe even a coup — after soldiers held protests over their unpaid salaries.
Rioting broke out.
There’s a 7 p.m. curfew in Juba at the best of times and for a few days afterward, some embassies ordered their staff to stay home.
Juba is not a town you want to get caught up in when fighting breaks out.
After the civil war began in 2013, traumatized civilians reported being hunted in the streets based on their ethnicity, mainly by Dinka government soldiers.
There are more than 60 ethnic groups in South Sudan, but the Dinka and the Nuer are the two main ones. Kiir is a Dinka while his former vice-president, rebel leader Riek Machar, is a Nuer.
Both men fought in the war against Sudan, but their rivalry for the top office in the land is now blamed for fuelling ethnic tensions.
Last summer, fighting broke out in Juba between government forces in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA/M-In Opposition, leading to the collapse of another short-lived peace agreement.
Hundreds were killed in the fighting. Government soldiers attacked a compound housing local and foreign aid workers, beating and raping several of them. A local journalist was also killed, execution-style, according to reports.
UN peacekeepers stationed nearby were heavily criticized for failing to protect civilians and for not responding to the compound attack for several hours. The head of the peacekeeping mission was eventually replaced after an internal inquiry.
Today, more than 180,000 people live in “protection of civilians” sites across the country, guarded by about 12,000 UN soldiers. There's even one on the outskirts of Juba, filled with people too frightened of violence to return to their homes.
Journalists are strongly advised not to film in public in Juba because of hostility to cameras, not just from police and soldiers, but ordinary citizens.
The view from the car window offers up startling snapshots of life in the capital. In one instance, we spot a child at the side of the road holding up a dead rat, squeezing it.
“Before independence, there was hope, and it wasn’t like this,” says Betty Achan, the head nurse at the state-run children’s hospital in the city.
Achan mainly treats children suffering from acute malnutrition. When we met her, she hadn’t been paid in three months, but she still came to work every day. How could she not, she said, given the situation.
Every bed was full in the acute malnutrition ward, with mothers and children sitting or lying two by two. The mothers shared the same haunted and helpless look, clinging to the mattresses like life-rafts as they tried to will their children to stay on this earth.
Marial Kwot, not yet two years old, was there with his mother, Lillian. The little boy had that strange look of knowledge and wisdom beyond his years that many children suffering from malnutrition seem to have.
And like so many of South Sudan’s women, Lillian is on her own. She says her husband is a soldier stationed in the north, and she hasn’t seen him since 2015.
“Sometimes, I sew clothes for people to get money,” she says. “And then I feed [Marial].”
Asked if anyone can help her, her response is quiet and small: “I don’t think so.”
Elsewhere in the ward, others were slipping away.
A boy named Bok reached for his mother’s hand one day and was gone the next. And a man outside with skinny arms tried to feed his son, Daniel. But he batted the cup away. Too far gone.
The Juba International Airport says a lot about how the country functions today. There are two “terminals.” One is clearly the VIP building. For one thing, there is an actual building there. And stanchions on the runway ready for a red carpet to be rolled out. Crisp. Orderly.
The other is a collection of tents with loose plywood boards for floors. A subterranean threat lurks in the form of holes that open up unexpectedly to consume a foot or an entire leg.
This is where the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service operates, ferrying a dizzying number of aid workers to and from various remote locations and other airfields that handle relief flights.
It’s a sweaty, throbbing, clamouring, luggage-juggling howl of a place.
But it works and is efficient in its own way. And without it and the massive aid operations, South Sudan would fall apart completely.
There are two declared famine zones in South Sudan, both in Unity State in the north. We caught a lift out to one of them in Leer County on a World Food Program (WFP) helicopter to witness an emergency airdrop.
Airdrops can sometimes be the only option when large numbers of people have been cut off or displaced by fighting. Organizing them involves a lot of negotiation between the aid agencies and the government, and with opposition forces in control of different parts of the country.
The drop on April 28 was the second in 30 days to about 20,000 displaced people gathered in and around the town of Din Din, opposition territory and birthplace of their leader, Machar.
Upon arrival, we had to first pay our respects to the local commander, a man named Brig.-Gen. Mawich Nhial Phan, who also called himself the Leer County commissioner.
A chargé d'affaires from the Canadian Embassy in Juba was on the WFP mission as an observer and the commissioner had come prepared with a letter, handwritten on foolscap and enclosed in a home-made envelope, addressed to "Team from Canada.”
The letter accuses Kiir’s government of attacking Leer County because “Dr. Machar is the son of this county.”
The commissioner also called on the UN to “put more pressure on the warring parties so that the 2015 peace can be implemented.”
“For what we have seen the government in Juba is not serious about the peace to come to South Sudan.”
The commissioner was happy for us to talk with the people waiting on the ground for the rations to arrive from above. They lined up in the hot sun with ration cards clutched in their hands.
“We’ve only received one ration card per household, even when there are many children,” says a woman named Sarah Nyakuonypuck.
She's a mother of four, and her story echoes that of many others in the crowd. She says 10 people in her family were killed when government-allied soldiers attacked her village last October, burning it to the ground.
“Now, we don’t have a garden. No cows. No house. We survive because of the World Food Program.”
South Sudan is a country drenched in disappointment. It’s etched into the faces of even its youngest.
How could it not be?
It’s estimated that more than one million southern Sudanese refugees and/or their descendants returned to their ancestral home after independence in 2011.
Now, the flow is entirely in the other direction: 1.5 million South Sudanese who have lost faith in independence fleeing war and famine across the borders into Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda and beyond. Many have put their life in the hands of smugglers to get them up to Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Europe in rickety boats.
More than three million South Sudanese have now been displaced by the conflict, either internally or externally.
But there are pockets of civil society trying to stand their ground in this undeniably oppressive environment. One of them is a group of musicians and spoken-word artists in Juba called Ana Taban (which translates as I’m Tired).
There’s a big mural outside their workspace that shows a rifle firing a white dove out of the barrel. It’s not subtle. But there’s no time for that in South Sudan.
Inside, it looks like a clubhouse — a secret fort where you could steal away to read comic books and chew gum.
Most members are refugees or the children of refugees who came back in that great wave of returns. They put on readings and plays and partner with a local school to offer some activities for children, along with clean drinking water.
“This is not what I voted for,” Baraka Ayuru says of the current state of affairs. The 38-year-old returned from the U.S. after casting his ballot there in 2011. “I voted for a peaceful nation. I voted for my children’s children to have a better place.”
Educating the young is key, he says.
“We identify ourselves by our ethnic groups, but I don’t think with that type of manner we will be able to go further. We need to change that type of thing.
“I need to be called a South Sudanese, not by my tribe.”
The space actually belongs to the Aggrey Jaden Cultural Centre. Jaden was an intellectual who studied in Khartoum in the 1950s, one of the first from southern Sudan to do so, according to his grandson.
“For now, it is really bad,” says Kenyi Lado, 34, standing in front of a giant mural of his grandfather, who advocated independence for South Sudan.
“It’s really bad. You don’t see the vision. This is not what we really wanted. We wanted to be free and grow our nation.”
Long John Akoy, 30, wears a T-shirt with an Ana Taban hashtag asking for a bloodshed-free 2017. Describing himself as a reformed thief and a storyteller, he says the country deserves better leadership.
“[The leaders] have been at war for very long. They’re traumatized. And they’re still war-minded.”
In Juba’s diplomatic circles, some say President Kiir is actually struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But if you believe the president’s spokesperson, Ateny Wek Ateny, Kiir is the only person standing between South Sudan and a full-on genocidal war.
“Take it from me, my dear,” he says in an interview. “Salva Kiir is one of the best people that love peace for this country.
“And take note of this ... If Salva Kiir now says he’s stepping out of power, as I speak to you now, you’d better run away. Run back to Canada. You will see other warlords within this city.”
Ateny is a towering man with an uneven gait who bends down to make his points, one eye staring over the glasses that sit crookedly on his face.
His own exit strategy seems clear given his dual British citizenship and house in London.
We met at the government’s State House in Juba, where he served hibiscus tea. Unlike that lone road-worthy ambulance serving three states up in Aweil, there are two ambulances in the government compound.
Ateny gave us a tour of the bullet holes on the outside of the compound walls. He says Machar’s men opened fire last summer, killing two presidential guards and ending the most recent attempt at peace.
Machar’s people, not surprisingly, say government soldiers started the fighting.
Repeated attempts to reach a ceasefire, including a unilateral ceasefire declaration from Kiir this week, have yet to produce a lasting peace.
The UN’s top human rights official on the ground in South Sudan has said that while both sides have committed atrocities in the civil war, Kiir’s forces are responsible for the majority of them.
Kiir recently replaced his army chief, Paul Malong, with a new head from an ethnic minority tribe. The opposition accuses Malong of recruiting Dinka militias, and some government army generals resigned in the past complaining of ethnic bias in the military.
It’s far too soon to weigh in on the significance of the move — whether it’s a genuine attempt at reform or just another power struggle playing out.
But what is clear is that it’s not just people packing up and leaving South Sudan, it’s their faith, their goodwill, their strength and all their hopes and dreams, too.
And you’re left wondering how many more “independence days” the country will have to endure before one of them actually means something.