South Sudan’s sixth birthday is no celebration 

July 9, 2017
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Kristin Myers

The world’s youngest nation turns six on July 9th, but the occasion brings little cause to celebrate. Conflict has forced more than three million people to flee their homes, and more than six million are struggling to find enough food to survive. We take a look at the current situation.

A nation is born

After a decades-long civil war, South Sudan gained independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in July 2011. This followed relatively peaceful, fair, and inclusive referendums, where a staggering 99% of the country had voted for independence. The United States, which was heavily involved in the process of independence, was among the first countries to recognize South Sudan as its own nation. The world was optimistic — and so were the people of South Sudan.

IDP girl in South Sudan

A young girl stands in the doorway of her temporary home in the swamps of Unity State, South Sudan, where her family are hiding from conflict. Photo: Kieran McConville

The country entered the world unburdened by debt and possessing a wealth of oil resources. Despite what the World Bank described as “huge” development needs, it was hoped South Sudan could look forward to a relatively prosperous future. On paper, it seemed that the country’s potential oil revenue could easily power the necessary development of institutions and infrastructure.

“In 2011, the world applauded South Sudan for gaining independence… six years on, the youngest member of our global family is in crisis and needs our help.”

A legislative assembly was created, and a police force. Families excitedly rushed to enroll their children in elementary school, many for the first time. Leaders set about trying to build South Sudan’s economy and tackle its high levels of poverty. The country seemed on track to achieve its ambitions.

But the hope and unity displayed at independence proved short lived. In December 2013, the country descended into violence after a falling out between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. Inflamed by long-standing ethnic tensions, the conflict has choked South Sudan ever since. Despite numerous attempts to broker peace, the war continues with no end in sight.

A spiraling food crisis

The conflict has caused widespread hunger. In February, famine was declared in two areas of the country. While the most recent Integrated Food Security Phase Classification report found that famine conditions no longer exist in these areas (due in part to a swift humanitarian response), almost two million people remain on the brink. More than six million struggle to find enough to eat, and one million children are suffering from malnutrition.

Mom and baby in Unity State, South Sudan

Khadra* and her two-year-old daughter, Jamilah*, were screened for malnutrition by the staff of Nile Hope, a South Sudanese nonprofit that Concern Worldwide is partnering with. They were hiding on an island deep in the swamps of Unity State, and Jamilah became severely malnourished. Photo: Kieran McConville

The fighting has displaced almost four million people. Thousands of refugees stream over South Sudan’s borders every day. Many flee to neighboring Uganda — so far nearly one million South Sudanese refugees have sought safety there.

“We urgently need a ceasefire and a lasting peace so that we can get safe access to the millions of people who desperately need assistance.”

The ongoing conflict has made it difficult for agencies like Concern to provide humanitarian assistance. Fighting prevents aid from getting to the areas where it’s needed most and it also makes it too risky for people to visit health and nutrition centers. Affected populations have also become increasingly mobile as they abandon their homes to escape violence. This makes it even harder for agencies to find and help people in need.

“We urgently need a ceasefire and a lasting peace so that we can get safe access to the millions of people who desperately need assistance,” said Carol Morgan, Concern’s Regional Director for the Horn of Africa.

Concern Worldwide has a staff of nearly 350 in South Sudan and reaches over 400,000 people. We provide emergency nutrition for the malnourished and distribute food. These services are part of what helped pull South Sudan back from famine, but as Concern’s South Sudan Country Director Fiona McLysaght warns that, “the humanitarian situation is worsening as more areas become inaccessible. If the war continues, the food and nutrition situation is likely to deteriorate further.”

Widowed mother of five, Ahok Agouk Baak

Widowed mother of five Ahok Agouk Baak at a group vegetable plot, part of a Concern effort to support livelihoods and food production in Aweil West, Northern Bahr el North, South Sudan. Photo: Kieran McConville

Without peace, suffering will only increase

As South Sudan leaves its infancy, its people still hold the same hopes for their country as they did six years ago. The country is still full of potential and promise, but those hopes will never be realized without a durable peace. Until that is achieved, the suffering of the South Sudanese people will only increase.

“In 2011, after a referendum, the world applauded South Sudan for gaining independence after decades of war,” said Morgan. “But six years on, the youngest member of our global family is in crisis and needs our help.”

McLysaght agreed: “We cannot let South Sudan slip off the world’s radar.”

*Names changed for security reasons

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