South Sudan: From Frisbee to cholera

In December 2013 there was a field close to the UN compound in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where every Saturday young American aid workers would hang out and play Frisbee. They would take extra Frisbees so local children could join in and have some fun and spend an hour under the tropical sun and lush vegetation.

 Many of the young internationals would be trying to forget about the nine-to-five and their organisation’s work, especially the impact on their jobs of the UN 2014-2016 Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP). This was the UN report that was to lay out how much funding was needed to develop the infrastructure of the world’s newest nation. The report was full of plans for supporting the international non-governmental organisations, and local ones too, in providing health and education services to a country that had only just emerged from 50 years of civil war with the Islamist Sudanese government in Khartoum.

Unread copies of that report are now gathering dust under piles of office paper across Juba, and it is now being referred to as “the report for a country that no longer exists”.

Because on the 15th December something unexplained happened. On the 12th December there was an increase in the number of troops visible around town, by the 14th their guns no longer had the safety catch engaged.  Then on the 15th the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) split between forces loyal to the President and forces loyal to former Vice-President Riek Machar. After forces loyal to Mr. Machar were defeated, Government forces entered neighbourhoods primarily populated by civilians of Nuer origin and began targeting Nuer men. The army, police, the wildlife services, prison guards and firemen went house-to-house killing Nuer men or taking them away. In one incident, at least 300 men of Nuer origin were killed in a security forces compound. Thousands fled their homes and neighbourhoods were left emptied and often destroyed by security forces. There are now 20,000 Nuer people taking refuge on the Frisbee fields of Juba.

In total 85,000 people in South Sudan are seeking refuge inside UN compounds. This is the largest number of displaced people the UN has ever had to accommodate in South Sudan. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited the refugee camp in Juba in May. According to those who met him, he was shocked at the squalor that people are living in. He apparently said Syrian refugees have better conditions than South Sudan. The land is a swamp adjacent to the river Nile and it is currently rainy season. People are up to their ankles in water. On the 15th May a person was reported to have cholera, within three days the number had risen to 130.

Ban Ki Moon’s stark comment “if the conflict continues, half of South Sudan’s 12 million people will either be displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead by the year’s end,” has resulted in a one month ceasefire to allow the primarily subsistence farming population of South Sudan to plant crops to sustain themselves until 2015.

The UN’s CAP report has been frozen indefinitely and the number one focus is saving lives. Buouyed by political statements and increased aid finance, the international aid and charity sector has been galvinised into action.

But some internationals in South Sudan are urging caution.

The challenge is great, the UN compounds are overloaded, and the situation is far from ended, but what of the three provinces where there is no fighting? What of the many South Sudanese people and politicians who do not support their government’s military action? What about the 50% of the population who won’t “be displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead by the year’s end”? Who is supporting them in the meantime to help the country get back on track?

No-one it seems. Many development projects have been cut abruptly and plans to include a quota for national NGOs to benefit from UN funds have been dropped.  

The lack of foresight in reducing development work during a humanitarian crisis can put a recovering country back years. In South Sudan people are already talking about starting the country from scratch a second time around. But this is over dramatic. It plays to the news agenda, which in turn drives the wealthier nations to cough up money. The potential famine and starvation are very real, but they are a trend not a reality yet. As one observer said in a hushed tone “this is not a country in flames”. It feels like that comment is a heresy in the aid community in Juba.

I was last in Juba in 2011. South Sudan was not yet a state. In the international community, people split into two camps. One side said that the country would become Africa’s Yugoslavia, with inter-ethnic fighting leading to the formation of up to 10 mini-states. The other side said, don’t worry, it will be all right. What’s actually happened is neither black nor white. These are important days for South Sudan and it’s time for the international community to seek the “grey future” once more. 

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