Responding by God's mercy in South Sudan
By Mark Mitchell, Senior Humanitarian Programmes Coordinator
It’s searing in Juba today, significantly hotter than when I was here in August last year. I’m sitting in the Caritas South Sudan office with a fan on each side of the room, but it feels like I’m sitting in an oven as each fan blasts hot air in my direction. The fan on my computer is working overtime and my water is nearly hot enough to make tea.
Of course, it’s not just the room that is getting hotter, there hasn’t been any decent rain in the country for more than two years. However, many say that the famine in South Sudan is entirely man-made and is due, in large part, to the bloody conflict that has wracked the country since 2013 - just two years after independence was gained from Sudan in the north. Prior to independence, southern Sudan already held the dubious record for hosting Africa’s longest war.
As a result of the conflict, pastoral communities have been displaced and crops that had been planted earlier in the season remain untended, as there’s no one to harvest them. Those who have been forced to move have lost their livestock and livelihoods as they flee for safety, and those still on the run are searching for whatever food they can find, including water lilies and palm fruit. Having first come to southern Sudan in 1996, it’s sadly a story I am all too familiar with.
I discuss the heat and the challenges with a colleague while we make plans for the response to this latest emergency. Francis Ojoadi (pictured below right) is one of the humanitarian coordinators at Caritas South Sudan and I ask him how he manages to keep going.
“It is only by God’s Mercy” he says. Clearly, this is a man who has had to cling on to that mercy on many occasions.
“Rebels act like government and government act like rebels, and the crimes against women and against children are atrocious.”
Neither leader, either from the government or the rebel forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition (SPLA IO), seem to have any control over their forces.
At the peak of the fighting last year, Francis had to assist his family over the border to Uganda, where they joined the other nearly 720,000 refugees that have fled south since July 2016.
He says the Madi tribe, which he comes from, is a peaceful one and that the majority have had access to education. They were forced off their land after political shifts and realignments led to localised conflict, with people being killed, properties looted and crops being destroyed. After appeals to the government to intercede failed, they don’t feel safe now to re-enter the village.
Francis doesn’t like to speak of what he has seen, but when asked says he “carries on through God’s Mercy.” In a situation where people are picked out at road blocks, or arrested in Juba just because of their tribe, he says he “knows of God’s protection.” This is a huge concern for Francis and his family. Understandably, he wants his family to feel secure in the house that he built.
At home, they had access to fertile land with fruit trees, while in the camps they don’t have a place to dig and grow their own crops. Movement is restricted by the Government of Uganda, but there is a little food available for everyone and they are able to sleep at night without fear of being shot.
He is particularly concerned for his 13-year-old daughter, as he says that immorality in the camp is high and girls are forced to sell themselves to get money to be able to pay for basic necessities. With the number of pregnancies already at high levels, Francis wonders what the long-term impact will be on these refugees, as well as on his own family.
The situation in South Sudan is getting worse, with more arms coming into the country. War has undoubtedly caused the famine in Unity State, in the north of the country, and the government has been limiting access to the areas most affected by the current food shortages, as these are rebel-held areas. Consequently, the cost of food, even in Juba, has increased tenfold since the start of the crisis, Francis tells me. In peacetime, areas in the south (Equatorias) would have been able to provide food to the markets in the north. Now, as people across the country have been forced to flee, they have not been able to harvest.
Despite the worsening situation, Francis believes that it is his efforts, along with others at Caritas and the wider humanitarian community, that help to keep people sustained. NGOs and UN agencies are trying to negotiate with the South Sudan Government to secure access to affected areas. Working in very difficult and insecure conditions, humanitarian agencies have even resorted to airlifting food into communities facing starvation.
“Caritas will continue to provide essential assistance, and we need to be strong to support those who are less fortunate than us,” he says.
Francis’ hope is that peace will come to South Sudan, but he says changes are needed.
“People need look past their tribal affiliations and see themselves as South Sudanese. Only then can real independence come.”
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