It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.
We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?
We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.
The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.
These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.
Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.
The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.
Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.
“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.
During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.
Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.
With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food. Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help. “I am old. I have nothing. I ask for my family. During the earlier war we ate leaves to live. Now we are eating them again.”
How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.
But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.
Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.
“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.