by Farah Karimi
Welcome to the youngest nation in the world, South Sudan. A place burdened with a violent and painful history of armed combat for independence, and the poorest country by almost every standard – a shocking 83% of women are illiterate and there's the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
At the same time, this is a country blessed with promising prospects. Not only is the vast majority of its surface covered with the most fertile soil in Africa, under it sits an immense oil reserve, waiting to be tapped to generate a billions of dollars of revenue for the country. Last year, investors were rushing to South Sudan to claim their share in a bright future, with predictions for the country to become the fastest growing economy in the world, as soon as from 2014 onwards.
But then came December, and political frictions suddenly erupted into a wave of violence across the country. What started with an incident in the barracks of the presidencial guard quickly extended and soon resulted in violent attacks between the two major ethnic groups of the country: Dinkas and Nuer.. Unlike in previous conflicts, this time also children and women were killed. Gone is the bright future, and back are the days of death, fear and despair in South Sudan.
While peace talks are dragging on in Addis, the people of South Sudan are trying to cope with a new reality. In UN House, a camp for internally displaced people in Juba, estalished on the compund of the UN mission in South Sudan, over ten thousand of people have come together to seek protection from the battle that was then raging in the capital Juba. Young Nuer men, especially those with the traditional Nuer marks on their forehead, are still in shock, fearing for their lives the moment they leave the compound. Although there is no way of telling whether their fear is justified, the signals are not encouraging – there are daily reports of men being questioned when they leave the camp or never coming back at all. Around one million of people are displaced in South Sudan or live as refugees in neighbouring countries.
After just two days in South Sudan, I'm really sad to see what impact this outburst of violence has had on the South Sudanese people. Talking to people in the UN House camp , I've been shocked by a depressing collection of problems, personal suffering and fear. Farida, a 12 year old, got separated from her parents. She stayed with her older sister in Juba, when the violence started, and the two girls went to the compound for protection. Now Farida is living here with just her sister and she tells me that her father got killed. Does she want to go back, yes, of course. And she wants to be a doctor, but as I try and talk to her about life here in the camp, she starts staring at her feet.
Even in this camp, in the UN compound in the middle of the capital Juba, there is hardly enough basic shelter and protection. There is not enough space, and the simple latrines don't provide enough privacy for women and young girls. Aid workers are rushing in new supplies, and programs are being launched to address the basic needs. Today Oxfam is starting the distribution of charcoal vouchers, so the most vulnerable can cook their food and heat water. But what worries me is the lack of protection of women. There is no reliable information about harassments or violence against women, but the culture here is based on settlement of these kind of incidents by a community court. This is done silently, and women don't have a say.
I've seen so many countries, ravaged by conflict, and every time it strikes me how it is always the most vulnerable, the children, the women and the elderly who are hardest hit by war and terror. I'm deeply concerned about the faith of the women and young girls within this UN compound, and even more so about the thousands of women throughout the country, who have not made it to a protection camp.
And as I hear of another breakdown of the peace negotiations in Addis, I wonder whether politicians, in their pursuit of power and personal gain, ever understand the grave suffering their acts are causing to millions of people who they say they represent and lead.
Welcome to South Sudan, the world's youngest nation. Born just three years ago with joy and hope, and now terribly sick.
Farah Karimi is Chief Executive of Oxfam in the Netherlands. She is travelling to South Sudan and Northern Uganda, to witness the impact of the crisis in South Sudan and to assess the needs of the population.