South Sudan was declared the world’s 193rd country on 9th July 2011, after succeeding from Sudan. Independence was supposed to signal a new era for the people of South Sudan who overwhelmingly voted for separation from South Sudan. The struggle for sovereignty had wrought destruction across much of South Sudan, and independence was a time of hope for many. However, peace was short lived.
Today, South Sudan is one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. One in three people have fled their homes, including 2.5 million people living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Parts of the country are teetering on the brink of famine, with more civilians without food, in more places than ever, in the history of the country.
Parts of South Sudan have recently witnessed an upsurge in violence, despite a ceasefire being declared in December 2017. Renewed fighting in parts of the former Unity State began in April and have displaced thousands of civilians. Many others have been forced from their homes in the Equatorias due to on-going conflict. While a peace deal was recently signed between two of the main warring factions, it is yet to be seen if this will translate to an end to the fighting on the ground.
We spoke to families who’ve borne the brunt of the violence, sharing their thoughts in the run up to the anniversary of independence in South Sudan.
“South Sudan independence means freedom to me,” says Majok (45) as he kisses his youngest child. “When we got our independence, we were happy, living in harmony and peace. There was no harassment, we were moving freely without fear. After the 2013 crisis, I did not celebrate independence. I will not celebrate the one this year unless peace comes back to South Sudan.”
Today Majok lives in a Protection of Civilians site in the United Nations base in the capital city Juba, teaching English to displaced children. He is still too afraid to return home. “Last month two pastors were killed in Juba town by unknown gun men. If they can easily kill God’s servants, it means the security is not good for me to go back home.”
Kugar (36) was forced to flee when the war broke out, and is currently displaced and living in the former Unity State. It has been a struggle to provide for her children since her husband was killed in the fighting. “Sometimes my children go three to five days without eating. They will just lie on the ground because of the lack of energy to play. I go to the nearest river to look for water lilies to eat. But when the river dries up, there will be no more lilies.”
Kugar shares a meal of porridge made of water lilies with her four children. Food security experts warned in February that unless aid and access were maintained, a record 7.1 million South Sudanese would face ‘crisis’ or worse ‘acute’ food insecurity between May and July.
Kugar displays some wild fruits she found in the forest.
Famine was declared last year in two parts of South Sudan, but was reversed largely because of the aid provided by humanitarian organisations. Looming famine has become a far too familiar warning in South Sudan.
Rape has been rife during the conflict, used as a weapon of war to terrorize and oppress civilians. The UN reported that during an upsurge of violence between 8 and 12 July 2016, over 200 people were raped, the actual figure is likely to be much higher. Nyedine (36) had a narrow escape from being attacked herself. “It happened one day when I was fleeing. I went to the forest to find food for our children. Criminals took off our clothes, but I was able to run away naked. Many other women were captured and raped.”
When the war broke out in 2013, tens of thousands of families fled to United Nations bases for safety and protection. Five years on, over 200,000 South Sudanese remain sheltered inside these overcrowded Protection of Civilian sites, too scared to return home.
Simon (11) lives in a Protection of Civilian site in the capital, Juba, with his father and six siblings. He was only 4 years old when his country was declared independent, and has barely known a life in peacetime. Simon’s mother and brother were killed during the crisis. Despite this, Simon still has hope: “I’m positive that one day there will be peace in South Sudan, and we [my family] will go back to Juba and live a happy life.”