South Sudan: Two steps forward, one back

The sun sets over Leer town in South Sudan. © NRC

“I felt like a bird, watching the situation unfold from above. I watched our staff crouch in man-made bunkers that were built just a few weeks prior. I listened as the gunfire echoed outside.”

I heard conversations crackle through satellite phones as co-workers checked in on the safety of one another. Tents flapped in the wind; the same sound that lulled me to sleep a few weeks ago under the sky of Leer County in South Sudan.

Our work in Leer has always reminded me of the children’s book “The Little Engine That Could.” It felt like a struggle where for every two steps of progress, we slid one step back. Leer wasn’t an easy place at the best of times — the absence of social services and a volatile conflict history makes it hard for its people to improve their lives. But after violence repeatedly rocked the county over the course of the last two and a half years, it often felt like we were rebuilding after the apocalypse.

Leer was destroyed countless times after the civil war broke out in December 2013. Some of the worst atrocities were committed here.

The county’s only hospital run by Doctors without Borders was destroyed, and its patients slaughtered in their beds. Sixty young men were suffocated to death after being thrown in a shipping container on a Catholic missionary compound.

A reminder of death hangs in the air, and the piles of ashes that remain on the land where mud hut homes were burned to the ground means you are surrounded by a graveyard everywhere you go.

Periods of calm meant that we were able to set up two operational bases with local materials and tents. We re-opened 21 primary schools reaching more than 6,000 children for the first time since the war began, distributed shelter materials to recently displaced families and reached nearly 11,000 households with seeds and farming tools.

South Sudanese children receive school supplies from NRC at Payak Primary School in Leer County. © NRC

Two weeks ago armed groups took up weapons once again and clashed on Leer’s decimated soil. Women and children once again ran to the relative safety of the swamps where they had sheltered for weeks at a time during 2014 and 2015. Again, they left their belongings behind, including the school supplies and farming tools that NRC had distributed just weeks prior.

NRC’s compound in Leer, South Sudan, was completely destroyed in the recent violence. Children’s maths sets, chalk and pencils lie scattered on the ground. © NRC
I imagined the thoughts that ran through the children’s minds as they ran for safety, preparing again to survive on water lilies and grass, memories of school songs and playtime fading fast.
Swampy fields in Leer County, South Sudan, just after farmers cultivated with NRC-distributed seeds and tools. © NRC

As I imagine our local staff hiding in the swamps, I can almost hear the conversations they must have to one another. Teachers crouching in the bushes wonder if they’ll get another chance to reopen their schools again. Farmers worry if they will harvest the seeds they sowed just weeks ago. How many times can you rebuild a community?

Hollyn works with NRC and has been living in South Sudan for 4 years. Click here to read more about what the Norwegian Refugee Council is doing in South Sudan.

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