Today marks South Sudan’s third year of independence. But in the past seven months, the sense of unity that brought its people together in 2011 has been lost, pushing 1.5 million from their homes and forcing many to live in appalling conditions.
“With my family we ran to the Malakal Teaching Hospital… but they started killing people in the hospital. They asked for money, they asked for cell phones. If you didn’t have them, you were shot dead ... I saw somebody killed on the way, and I saw one lady raped at the hospital … That night, people were running to UNMISS compound. My husband, we left behind, because he could not walk. When people started running, he said ‘You must go or you’ll die.’"
Just to reach the safety of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Malakal, Rebecca*, a school teacher for 37 years, endured more that anyone should in a lifetime. But now, within these razor wire fences, she is living another nightmare. Ramshackle shelters constructed with tarpaulin and string provide no protection against the heavy rains which started six weeks ago.
Shelters are densely packed and provide little privacy for the estimated 19,000 people who have sought refuge here. Many are living knee-deep in muddy water - hard metal bed frames rise just above the water line; cook stoves are propped up with wire; the little they have is soiled by the ubiquitous sticky mud. Latrines are a quagmire of stench and stagnant water.
People are angry – and rightly so. “You say no one should live like this – then why are we living like this?” one man asks me as he leads me to his waterlogged shelter.
Skin and respiratory diseases
Those who are lucky wade through the filth in plastic boots. Those who aren’t must roll up their trousers, hold up their skirts and tread barefoot through the muck. People say they are suffering skin and respiratory diseases. The cholera outbreak that has spread across Juba has not yet reached Malakal. But if it did, the impact would be devastating.
The UN and aid groups are in the process of moving people to higher, drier ground within the compound, but there will not be enough space for all. The UN says priority will be given to those who are worst off. But people like Ajak*, 60, who was shot in the leg and is unable to walk in the thick, deep mud, remain stranded in their miserable shelters, reliant on the support of family or friends.
Women at risk
A month after Rebecca arrived here at the base, she travelled with a group of women – for safety, she says, as the risk of assault, rape or murder for single women along this path is high – back to the hospital to find her husband.
“We found him. He was dead on the bed. We could not tell if he was shot dead or he died of thirst, hunger or sickness,” she says.
Loss of dignity
Rebecca’s story is not unique. Almost everyone who has sought shelter here has lost family members, endured violence and had their homes destroyed. They also speak of a loss of dignity, being forced to live in these conditions and rely on aid handouts. But Rebecca says the squalor she is living in here is preferable to the dangers outside.
“If you go alone and they get you, it’s not good. The camp is far better when you talk in terms of safety. There is protection. Only at night in dark places you can get harassment in the camp,” she says.
Six months of suffering
Ajak and Rebecca are just two of the 1.5 million people displaced by this conflict. Almost 100,000 have sought shelter in UN bases like this one in Malakal, and 350,000 have fled across the borders to neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. That leaves 1 million more forced from their homes for fear of their lives since December. Planting season has been missed by many, meaning failed harvests in months to come. The suffering in the past six months has been extreme, but sadly, it will get worse before it gets better, as 4 million are projected to face extreme hunger by the end of this year.
Before the fighting first started last December, South Sudan was projected to have the highest GDP growth rate in the world for 2014. By January, the violence that was sparked in the Presidential Guard barracks in Juba had spread to Jonglei, Lakes and Upper Nile states. Oil production has dropped significantly, and even if the warring leaders start putting the interests of their people above their own personal grievances, it will take years to undo the damage that has been done in the past six months.
9 July marks South Sudan’s third year of independence. But looking at the extent to which this young nation has unraveled in the past six months, there won’t be much for people like Rebecca and Ajak to celebrate that day.
*Names have been changed to protect identity