Southern Sudan’s humanitarian disaster could dwarf Darfur

Soon, Southern Sudan’s humanitarian disaster could dwarf that of its neighbour Darfur.

Corline Timon shrugged her AK-47 off her shoulder and held it out in both hands to the commanding officer. Her back straight in ill-fitting fatigues, her face expressionless, the 42-year-old soldier took a step backwards; into civilian life.

The automatic rifle joined a stack of others in a pyre around rags and dried grass in a dusty military compound on the outskirts of Southern Sudan’s capital city, Juba. A jerrycan of accelerant was thrown on and the pile set alight.

With this ceremony 10 days ago, 26 years after the start of Africa’s longest-running civil war, and four years after a peace treaty was signed with the north, the disarming of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the governing Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), finally began.

Two days later a convoy of barges carrying UN food aid to 18 000 people displaced by fighting near the town of Akobo was attacked. At least 40 soldiers and civilians were killed, including children who jumped from the boats into the Sobat river and drowned. Last month 66 people, mainly women and children, were shot dead in their village, Torkey, in a tribal feud.

Even though the conflict with the Islamist Republic of Sudan to the north is officially over, war seems closer than peace here. And a humanitarian disaster widely thought more serious than that in neighbouring Darfur is unfolding.

It was in 2005, after two decades of bitter civil war, that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between Arab-speaking Khartoum and the SPLM of the Christian and animist south. The president of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, who took over when John Garang, the great SPLA war hero, died just three weeks into office, is also vice-president to President Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir, with a warrant out against him from the International Criminal Court over atrocities committed in Darfur, and facing a build-up of military hostility from Chad, has a presidential election approaching. As the political agenda hots up, so does tension between north and south. Suspicions are high in the south that Khartoum would do anything to disrupt its independence referendum, agreed under the peace deal and due in 2011, even to the point of backing militias as it did in Darfur. The south has 80% of Sudan’s oil and independence would nullify Khartoum’s deals with foreign investors.

There are almost 50 tribes in Southern Sudan’s 10 states, speaking 400 dialects. It is bigger than France, but no one aged under 40 has ever cast a vote, and a lethal mix of guns, tribal conflict, disease and displaced people is threatening to explode. It has seen nothing of the attention or celebrity campaigns that have helped Darfur. If the referendum leads to independence for the south, the new state will be born already failed.

Southern Sudan is awash with guns — 1 000 people have died in the past six months. Children are being kidnapped and traded, and cattle stolen, all against a backdrop of hunger and destitution. The government seems powerless to keep order and claims to be out of money. Last month President Kiir said oil revenue had been halved by world price slumps.

The numbers of refugees and displaced are rising steadily. Two million people have already returned from neighbouring regions, from the north, from Kenya, from Uganda, where they had fled during the war, and are arriving in towns and villages where there is no shelter, healthcare, food, sanitation, water or jobs.

With so many war-hardened former fighters and a seemingly unending supply of weapons coming in from neighbouring African countries and even, some believe, from enemies in the north keen to destabilise the south ahead of the 2011 referendum, disputes over land and animals quickly turn bloody. The lethal mix is exacerbated by a second year of drought, and by murderous incursions into border villages by the feared Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), taking advantage of the chaos to push in from Uganda.

It is, said the UN’s Sudan humanitarian co-ordinator Lise Grande, ”a humanitarian perfect storm”. At the UN’s Juba compound of block walls and razor wire, Grande says the spike in killings and child abductions is elevating a disastrous situation into a catastrophe.

”The unexpected fiscal crisis in the government is impeding its ability to provide basic services in what is one of the most remote areas on the planet.

”It is clear that international assistance and attention is making a big difference in Darfur. In the case of Southern Sudan there isn’t that donor money and yet the death tolls and the scope of the problems are higher here.”

Nowhere is the stagnation more apparent than in the capital city. Juba, boiling under desert temperatures, is a sprawl of refugees, returnees and aid agencies. Toyota Land Cruisers carrying multiple acronyms of international charities outnumber anything else on the two tarmac-covered roads. These cross and then peter out into pot-holed tracks that destroy the tyres and suspensions of the trucks that bring in the Ugandan market traders, with their pineapples, beans and potatoes that few can afford. The traffic brings chaos to a town where 10 years ago there were seven cars.

A few hotels have sprung up for the NGOs and the UN, and for Chinese, Kenyan and Ugandan workers here building boreholes and oil wells to drain the country of its resources. The prices are astronomical. Taxi drivers demand fares to make a London cabbie blush and dream of sending their children to school, abroad.

Even the government stays in Juba only part-time, most leaving when they can for long spells with their families in Khartoum, Kenya, Europe or the US.

”What can we do?” one minister who lives in the west asked the Observer at a party thrown by the British embassy in Juba to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. ”There are no schools so I can’t bring my family back. There is nothing here. Even for me, coming back after the war was a difficult decision. My parents and brothers were killed in the war. My children are now strangers to Sudan, they are never going to come here, but my family died for this country. I come back as little as I can.” He laughed and sank another beer: ”I work for the graveyard.”

The speeches at the party were full of talk of investment and building. But there are few signs of either. On one of Juba’s many expanses of wasteland, 3 000 refugee families had built makeshift homes. But then the government bulldozers arrived.

”We had no warning, no time to even get our belongings out. They just came with soldiers and said they wanted the land for development,” said Grace Ardlando.

They razed the settlement to the ground, promising new homes. ”That was three months ago,” said the war-widow, who has rebuilt a shack of palm leaves and old flour sacks that won’t withstand the first shower of the rainy season. ”They said they would get us somewhere to live, but they haven’t. With this demolition we are left with no water, no sanitation. The river makes many people sick. We had cholera here before and that is our worry.”

Dr Thomas Akim, medical director of Juba teaching hospital, says it is well staffed. Despite his dogged optimism, diseases that are long eradicated even in other African countries, such as measles, polio and leprosy, are making a comeback here, to join malaria, cholera, acute respiratory disease and HIV.

Like the roads, health provision extends little beyond Juba.

”There are health centres, but they are not equipped to give services. There will be no one there and medicines, of course, are short,” says Dr Akim. ”It would be good if we could train personnel to staff the rural areas.”

Southern Sudan has only three midwives, and one in six pregnant women die in childbirth. But none are as vulnerable as the children, born into war. The children at Gumbo, outside Juba, fear the ”Lokwo dano” — people thieves.

”We were coming home from school when some men came out of the bushes in torn clothes. They were calling and offering us soda. We were very scared so we ran,” said Susan Achan.

Last month two of her friends were not so lucky. ”We were picking mangoes,” said Sebit Quintino. ”We saw the men, they were Murle tribe, and we shouted to each other and ran, but three were playing in the water and didn’t hear. One of the boys turned up days later after managing to escape; the other two have never been seen again.”

The boys are traded for cattle and made to work, and the girls are also sold off for a dowry of cows. Odii Odwong used to be a farmer but was forced off his land by the war. He then became a soap salesman but was forced out of his home by the LRA. Now he is a refugee living in Gumbo; the graves of his wife and son are directly outside his hut door. ”We are squatters here and I have lost three of my four children. It is the children we worry about now, with all this stealing. It is a shame to see them so afraid.

”We here have been refugees in our own country for a long, long time now but things seem to get not better but much harder. There is a lot of crying going on because people have no food. I am not optimistic for the new Sudan. The Dinka and the Murle tribes are the ones we fear and they are on both sides of us. I would like to get a gun.”

Guns are on the minds of a group of Bari tribesmen at Gudlle, a rural area of rich grassland north of Juba.

The possession of cattle is everything: wealth, standing, nourishment and pension. The cows will only be sold or slaughtered in dire times.

Peter Acihek doesn’t even know the current market price, he thinks maybe it’s 1 000 Sudanese pounds, but in fact it’s closer to half that. He knows a child can be exchanged for one. Cattle are worth going to war for and their theft is a deep affront.

A few nights ago these villagers lost 100 cows, half their herd, in a night raid by Mundari tribesmen. They now keep the remaining cattle tethered close and cannot take them to the better pastures a little further away, so the cows are losing weight. ”There was a lot of shooting and they took all of our cows, but luckily half of them came back to us in the confusion of the bullets,” says Acihek.

In April the next village was raided by Murle tribesmen. ”The soldiers took away our guns because they said they did not want a feud. Now we have lost so many cows that our children have no milk and are hungry. The cows cannot get to the best grass and they will get sick.

”It is a terrible thing that we don’t have weapons to protect ourselves, but we will again get guns.”

James Miyak, a Dinka man and former rebel who works in the nearby prison, has now been sent out by the soldiers to guard the Bari people’s remaining cows at night.

”I will shoot them if the Mundari come back again,” he says, proudly showing the civil war shrapnel scars on his chest. ”You should be dead,” the Observer tells him. ”I will be the last man to die,” he replies with a glare. ”I have the gun.”

Most post-conflict countries need investment to rebuild. In Southern Sudan it is needed just to build.

There is nothing here to raise from the ashes, everything needs to start from scratch, a whole country has to be brought out of the peach-coloured dust.

”Many people have migrated back to the south but now there is the same situation, the same reasons that sparked the war in Darfur. The tribal conflicts, the distancing from Khartoum, guns are very cheap and people can find them easily. Now there are signs of peace in Darfur, many weapons are coming from there too, from Chad, from maybe even sources no one might expect,” said Mohamed Kashan, a Sudanese journalist in Khartoum.

”We are not casting you away,” government minister Luka Monojai told the 16 SPLA soldiers being demobilised in Juba, ”but reassigning you to new and important roles and duties to build a new Sudan. You must go with your heads held high, we are proud of you.”

But the question of whether or not Corline Timon and her fellow soldiers can build anything out of the dust and despair of Southern Sudan or are forced to reach back to their guns remains unanswered. —

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