Today marks the first birthday of South Sudan, the world's newest nation. After decades of conflict, South Sudan seceded from Sudan on July 9, 2011, prompting an influx of returning refugees seeking freedom and a new life after years of uncertainty.
But for many returnees, the happy ending they were seeking has proven more elusive than they had hoped. South Sudan's first year of independence has been a tumultuous one. Relations with Sudan are strained to the limit, oil production has been halted due to exorbitant transportation fees imposed by the north, conflict between the rival states has escalated to bombings and ground attacks, and more than 150,000 refugees are living in limbo along the border region.
On Saturday, Sudan and South Sudan made a verbal pledge to end the violence along the oil-rich border. Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, Sudan's defense minister, told reporters that the two nations have agreed “to the unequivocal commitment of the two parties to never solicit force to settle their disputes and differences and to commit themselves to the cessation of hostilities.”
But the conflict has already driven tens of thousands of refugees from their homes, and spawned a series of squalid camps rife with disease and desperation. On the ground in one Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan, refugees eke out a meager existence, barely surviving amid disease and hunger.
One refugee, Dan Morsal, told The Independent that he and his wife had to flee a bombing mere moments after the birth of their youngest daughter. His wife thought she was going to die as they fled on foot, looking back only to see their home in flames behind them. A ground assault accompanied the bombing, and Dan and his wife narrowly dodged bullets with their four young children and newborn baby in tow. "We had to stop and rest in the middle of the day because the children were so tired," he recalled.
Today, they live in what can only be described as desperation, watching the days go by in a refugee camp along the border. "We are praying for peace so we can go home to our homes and be safe," Dan says. "But for now it is better being a refugee. At home people were killing, they were bombing, they were shooting. Here we are not hearing the sound of the gun or of bombs. But our children suffer – there is no school for them to learn in."
Vanessa Cramond is a nurse from New Zealand. She serves as a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and describes the ongoing tragedy of life in camps along the border. “Water has been and remains the biggest concern,” she says. “There is not enough safe water for people to wash their hands and manage their own family’s hygiene. The conditions are hard to imagine, many families sharing small makeshift shelters. So much close contact can become a health risk, but they have no choice.” Illness is rampant, she explains, pointing to the lack of clean water. “People have been drinking from the hafirs [natural reservoirs], too, and we’re seeing a worrying percentage of the population here with diarrhea: about 40 percent of all medical consultations have been related to diarrhea.”
For Vivian Tan of UNHCR, the reality of life in a refugee camp in Sudan stands in stark contrast to her more comfortable life based out of Nairobi. In a journal entry covering her recent experiences in Yida, where tens of thousands of Sudanese are taking shelter in squalid camps, Tan describes the truth of the situation. “There's so much you take for granted when living in a city like Nairobi,” she writes. “Electricity, for one thing. And vegetables. Clean drinking water. Lavatory paper and flush toilets. Up near the border of Sudan and South Sudan, in a remote spot called Yida where nearly 60,000 Sudanese refugees have gathered by late June, there is none of that. Not for the refugees, and not for the UNHCR colleagues I am living with for four days.”
In 2011, Sudanese around the world voted in a historic referendum, deciding the future of their war-torn nation. When South Sudan became a nation on July 9, 2011, hopes were high that the country would forge ahead into a new era of freedom and stability. But after a year of ongoing conflict, optimism is running low.
In recent weeks, a new layer has been added to Sudan's already complex situation: a revolution is brewing in the north. Farouk Abu Issa leads an umbrella group for opposition parties in Sudan. They are calling for rallies and protests – demanding change, and demanding a new government. "We want to rally our people, organize our people so that they stand fast with us in achieving our goal in toppling this regime," he says of his efforts.
Meanwhile, a spotlight shines on South Sudan today as independence celebrations ensue across the country. Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited South Sudan days ahead of the nation's first birthday. He expressed dismay at the ongoing conflict, the dismal economic straits, and the relationship with Khartoum. "A year ago we joined the rest of the world in celebrating the birth of the new nation of South Sudan,” he said. “Today in Juba, my mood is rather more somber” But he expressed optimism for the future. "There is still time to turn things around,” he added. "Dialogue is the only way to resolve their differences and to build two viable states; military force is a dead-end, promising nothing but suffering and misery to their people."
Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinwright.net. Kristin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: July 9, 2012