South Sudan anniversary is no cause for celebration

Published on the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age websites on Wednesday 9 July 2014

By Tim Costello, World Vision Australia chief executive

Three years ago there was dancing on the streets of South Sudan as a new nation was born with hopes and dreams for a free and independent future. There was cheering for days after the long battle for secession from the north – even in Melbourne I was able to join in celebrations with South Sudanese living in Australia. Finally there was to be a future of democracy and peace, with plans for rapid development and construction of infrastructure funded by newly found oilfields. More than 1 million South Sudanese, including many who had been living in Australia, returned to their homeland full of hope and expectation.

But the joyous innocence of new nationhood would be short-lived, with pre-existing political tensions quickly spilling out, the latest and worst of the conflict erupting last December. The violence, with no end in sight, has pulled the world's youngest country apart at the seams.

Just last month at the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, I witnessed the extraordinary phenomenon of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon berating the president of South Sudan for seemingly abandoning the peace process. The cowboy hat-wearing Salva Kiir endured the dressing-down with head bowed.

Three years of independence for South Sudan is being marked on Wednesday by the absence of celebrations – as the country struggles to survive what the UN recently described as one of the gravest crises in the world's history.

Thousands of people have been killed or injured in the fighting since the conflict erupted and engulfed whole communities, and more than 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Some are now living in UN protection sites where they are faced with wretched conditions of overcrowding, sexual violence and disease outbreaks, with limited food and healthcare. Four hundred thousand people have fled to neighbouring countries.

Sadly, children have shouldered much of the burden, and make up more than two-thirds of the displaced population. Well over 4000 have been separated from their family or orphaned.

The UN has been stretched with the sheer influx of people. In the past couple of months thousands of malnourished people have arrived at Bentiu, one base in northern South Sudan, and in the past few weeks alone more than 200 children have died of cholera.

Famine is looming as the food crisis continues to escalate. Most of the population have been unable to plant their fields since the mass displacement. Some families are eating leaves. About 250,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition. In a country of 10 million, 4 million are in urgent need of food because of the continuing conflict.

This was not the future South Sudanese imagined as they danced and hooted and slapped each other on the back three years ago.

Peace, security and optimism have become shattered dreams.

South Sudan's climate is harsh. During the day for six months of the year the country endures unrelenting heat. The other half of the year is an overwhelming rainy season. The humanitarian response has become more difficult as the wet season has blocked the country's limited infrastructure, isolating many communities from what little assistance was available. Flooding has made aid delivery by land almost impossible and airdrops have become the main way to reach some of the population in need of food, water and other essentials.

In conflict-ridden countries, protection is paramount, especially of women and children. The UN has estimated more than 9000 children are serving as child soldiers in armed forces or groups in South Sudan. With lost hope and displacement sites having very little to offer, armed groups may be seen as the only real source of security, food, water and shelter.

Yet the severity of the crisis does not seem to have even pricked the world's conscience. Major agencies such as World Vision are struggling to secure the funds to deliver critical emergency relief such as food, water and shelter or to run programs that can reunite separated families and provide safe spaces for children.

Those returning to their homeland to help build an independent South Sudan, including many who made the journey back from Australia, have been met not just with the bitterness of disappointment but with displacement or even death.

Last week representatives of South Sudan's opposition walked out of Addis Ababa peace talks in protest, diminishing any hope of resolving the crisis soon. Peace talks have been put on hold by both sides, leaving South Sudanese, including those here in Australia, bitterly disappointed, questioning and praying for a peaceful solution.

Australia is home to almost 40,000 South Sudan nationals who, together with their compatriots, won't find much to celebrate on Wednesday. Instead they are grieving for the hope and potential of their nation and mourning the separation of families and lost loved ones.

The longer it takes for the international community to take notice of the thousands in desperate need in South Sudan, the risk of famine, exploitation of children and the cost of the country's recovery increases.

South Sudan – recently ranked the world's most fragile state – needs the attention, compassion and generosity of the world to give the country a chance to dream once more of peace and opportunity.

World Vision Australia's South Sudan Appeal, 13 32 40 or www.worldvision.com.au/SouthSudan 

Back to all Results