South Sudan Is Dying
Millions displaced, hundreds of thousands starving
by NORMA COSTELLO
Marshes and dirt. Marshes and dirt. The war in South Sudan could be explained by its harsh and bewildering terrain.
The only way to travel in one of the world’s poorest and most violent countries is in small, U.N.-charted planes, whose crisply-dressed pilots crouch down to explain safety features while gun-armed Toyotas speed down the runway.
“There are several safety exits in this aircraft, but hopefully we won’t need them,” our captain jokes as we wait for a passenger who’s been holding up the flight.
I’d take a picture, but photography is forbidden. Probably because Juba airport is one of the main arteries for the weapons flooding into the world’s newest country.
The Republic of South Sudan was born out of decades of fighting between guerrillas of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, and the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
After a 2011 referendum freed South Sudan from Sudan, the country quickly descended into a brutal civil war pitting the ruling Dinke tribe under the leadership of Pres. Salva Kiir Mayardit against those — mainly from the Nuer tribe — who support the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, or SPLA -IO.
In 2013 Kir accused Vice Pres. Riek Machar of instigating a coup, which caused Machar to lead his “white army” of Nuer troops against the Dinke-led SPLA.
Tribal violence has forced nearly 2.5 million people from their homes. No fewer than 100,000 people are starving. Mass graves, rape, recruitment of child soldiers — South Sudan has it all. On the streets, people whisper that this could be the next Rwanda.
In Melut in the Upper Nile region, U.N. peacekeepers are powerless as the White Nile, once a source of fish for the local community, has become a military frontier. The SPLA lies to the east. The SPLA-IO to the west.
Melut is oil country. The nearest airport — Paloich — was built with Chinese oil money, as was the asphalt road that ends abruptly beyond the company’s last outpost. Chinese engineers crowd the airport.
What look like sandbags lined up near some SPLA troops are actually sacks of food aid from the U.N. World Food Program. In South Sudan, a country of 11 million, everyone takes a cut.
In one of South Sudan’s huge refugee camps near Khorfulus, a former guerrilla named Simon — he lost a leg fighting against the Khartoum government — says aid supplies always wind up in the market.
“Take for example soap, that stuff is always going missing,” Simon says. “We know it’s been sent here, but when it arrives it ends up in the market. We have nothing. How can we afford to buy it, especially at those high prices?”
Since the war the South Sudanese pound has plummeted. Even when goods are available, people can’t afford them — leaving them dependent on foreign aid.
Sarah Nyalony is a Dinke grandmother in her mid-50s. Since her husband was killed several years ago, she’s now head of her family. “We get 2.5 to three kilograms of sorghum for a whole month,” she says, as a male camp chaperon looks on. “It’s nothing. We have no other food. At the very beginning, we used to get salt and lentils but we haven’t seen that for so long. As for cooking oil — ha! It’s a thing of dreams.”
The sorghum often comes whole and unground, which means locals inside the camp try to collect and sell firewood to pay the grinders. Otherwise they use whatever stones they can fine to grind the grain themselves.
Sarah — who says she hasn’t tasted salt in three years — explains that locals are using seeds to supplement their diet in the scorching-hot camp. “We collect seeds and grind them down to add to the sorghum. It’s the only thing we can add to it. We have tried everything in the bush and this is it during the dry season.” Water is also scarce.
The conflict in South Sudan is unpredictable and is composed of a series of random, sporadic flashpoints. Holding and taking ground in South Sudan rarely happens. And that means civilians are always fleeing somewhere.
Many men and some women join small bands of fighters loyal to the SPLA, SPLA-IO, Neur or Dinke. Actors change sides and alliances collapse and the country’s inaccessible regions are often left entirely out of the picture.
Everyone seems to have a gun. It’s chaos.
In Juba, SPLA troops go from door to door “collecting” weapons from those fleeing the conflict from other parts of the country.
Mary, a mother of three from eastern equatorial — one of the richest parts of the country, only recently devastated by the fighting — says soldiers came to her ad hoc home in Juba the previous week, demanding money.
“They came and took everything,” Mary says. “They are saying they look for weapons but that is a lie. They even steal the clothes we are wearing to sell in the market. When they came they left me standing in my underwear. They are just looting and raping. They rape us in front of our children and husbands.”
NGOs distributing food and other aid face a seemingly impossible task. Those displaced by the conflict have now become hopelessly dependent on aid. Kids who should be learning how to farm are now malnourished if not dying. The fabric of the country is thinning out.
“Will you pray for us?” Mary asks. “We know we are sinners and we are sorry to God. But now all the money is going to one tribe and we are losing all our children. If you are not Dinke, you can die. I voted for South Sudan. I believed it can be better, but now I am wearing a dress my sisters gave me and they collect money for water for our family.”
“I used to have a farm,” Mary continues. “I grew bananas and pineapples. We used to send food to the markets in Juba. The people in my area fed the whole of Juba, now my children have no vitamins and their bodies are swollen. The sisters here are suffering so much but we are hoping God will not forget us.”