“Even if peace would come, we cannot return home. We are not safe.”
These words, spoken by a grandmother who I met at an IDP camp in South Sudan, demonstrate the depth of the rifts that exist in this young nation. It also gives an indication of the challenges that need to be surmounted to get this country back to where it was before 15 December last year – and even more optimistically, on a path to steady development.
The violence of the past seven weeks has seen almost a million people pushed from their homes and, at last estimates, over 10,000 dead. And with the next rains just over a month away, 2014 is looking incredibly bleak for South Sudan if the right support is not given – urgently. If not, harvests are predicted to fail and more livestock will be lost, cutting off crucial sources of food for the country’s 12 million citizens. The UN has said that 3.2 million people stand to become food insecure by June.
Huge challenges to achieve peaceFirewood is becoming more scarce in Mingkamen, South Sudan. Photo: Aimee Brown/Oxfam
But amidst this grim picture, there are some signs of hope. The violence enacted along ethnic lines that is keeping so many thousands in makeshift settlements and camps is not universal. Anecdotally, almost everyone I have met since I arrived in South Sudan has told me stories of Dinka protecting Nuer friends in their homes, or Nuer host families welcoming Dinka who have fled fighting.
Even if this is the exception rather than the norm, it shows that it is possible to overcome the recent and distant history of hurt, violence and loss, and find a common path to peace in this, the world’s youngest country.
Civil society here and outside South Sudan are speaking this message. They want to be included in the political discussions in Addis between President Kiir and Reik Machar’s representatives. They want to use the community networks they have in towns and villages across South Sudan to encourage people to talk about reconciliation, rather than retaliation.
It is only with such a shift in thinking that change will come here.
Making a difference
For now, families I meet are making do with the little they have received from humanitarian support. The vast majority fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and have no means to make a living, let alone to buy food or other necessities.
I am moved by the sense of gratitude they express towards Oxfam for providing water, latrines and other services– so many have experienced the loss of family members and the trauma of conflict, yet they want to say thank you for the support they have received in the past two months.
I am impressed by the commitment of the Oxfam staff and casual workers. I met another woman – also a grandmother – who fled from her home with her six children and grandchildren and is now working as a latrine attendant. Before conflict broke out she was a county administration messenger, but she now takes a quiet pride in keeping her latrines as clean as the day they were built.
“They were built by Oxfam, but I am taking care of them as if they are my own. If they are clean, and the children know to wash their hands, then they don’t get sick. That’s why it is so important to me to keep them clean,” she said.
The needs are vast – so vast in fact it is sometimes hard to feel like we are making an impact. But reflections like these show that the support we are giving is making a difference to the lives of those who receive it.
Aimee Brown is blogging from South Sudan, where Oxfam is responding to the violence that erupted in December 2013. We are rushing food and clean water to crowded makeshift camps and working to prevent disease outbreaks.