Dreams deferred by civil war

Hope has been hit hard by conflict

Caoimhe de Barra

South Sudanthis week marked its third birthday, but there was no repeat of the joyous scenes that accompanied the country’s independence on July 9, 2011.

Three years after becoming the world’s newest independent state, the sense of optimism that once gripped this impoverished country has turned to despair. Independence offered the people of South Sudan a peaceful future and a chance to determine their own destiny. When the nation paused to mark the third anniversary of independence, however, it did so amid a backdrop of over one million people displaced from their homes by conflict and four million people facing the threat of famine.

So how did it all go so wrong?

South Sudan was born out of a bloody 50 year civil war, in which over two million people lost their lives in a struggle against rule from Khartoum, capital of Sudan. The conflict led to – or, perhaps, was a result of – such chronic under-investment in the region that when independence finally did arrive, South Sudan had just 100 kilometres of road to cover an area the size of France. Huge parts of the new country had no formal education or medical services.

Establishing stability is always a challenge for a new state but for South Sudan even establishing basic infrastructure was going to be an uphill battle.

Political violence

Already one of the poorest places on earth, South Sudan’s ability to feed all of its eight million people has been further compromised by the outbreak of political violence that has led to an estimated 1.5 million people being forced from their homes.

The fighting started last December and has continued despite two attempts to broker a peace deal. As with political conflicts around the world, it is the ordinary civilian population who are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Tragically, in South Sudan’s case, that means that the poorest of the poor pay the heaviest price.

Trócaire is working with our partners in Caritas, the global network of Catholic relief agencies, to deliver relief to people who have had to flee their homes. Caritas is providing 100,000 people with emergency relief, including food, plastic sheeting, blankets and clean water.

I recently travelled to South Sudan as part of this emergency response. The stories I heard from people were truly heart-breaking. These are people who were already living in extreme poverty, struggling on a daily basis to provide food, education and healthcare to their families. When fighting erupted in December, they lost what little they had.

I met one 25-year-old woman named Salome Amira. She told me that her village had been a peaceful one, where members of different ethnic groups worked and lived together in cooperation. However, political leaders have manipulated people and now that peace has been shattered.
Salome had to leave her home and she now lives in a camp for displaced people outside Juba, the capital city. The camp is not far from where she lived but she says that she will not go back to her home until she feels safe. Right now, she would rather live in a tent in a muddy camp than risk going home.
As is often the case when you meet people who have faced unimaginable challenges, I was struck by Salome’s dignity and determination. Many people would be broken when thrown into such circumstances but Salome, along with the many other displaced people I met, showed remarkable courage.
Life in these camps is remarkably difficult. Aid is arriving, bringing vital supplies to the people forced to live there. With each passing day, however, more supplies are needed. More and more people are abandoning their homes through fear and seeking refuge in camps.

A recent international surveynamed South Sudan as the world’s most fragile state, over-taking Somalia. It is tragic to think that the world’s newest state is also the weakest.
Just three years ago there was such a genuine sense of hope among the people of South Sudan. The long war with Khartoum was over; for the first time in their history the people of South Sudan would be able to govern themselves.
In people like Salome, I saw that hope is still alive. But a new conflict has set it back, and now each day brings with it new challenges. The peaceful future they thought they had achieved is not yet in their grasp.
Until that peaceful future is a reality, we must stand with people like Salome to make sure that hope remains.

Caoimhe de Barra is Director of Trócaire’s International Division. Visit trocaire.org/south-sudan to see how you can help.