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A new nation's first birthday

South Sudan, July 10, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Paula Bronstein/Getty Images  </span>
    South Sudan residents celebrate in the capital of Juba on Monday, the first anniversary of their nation's independence. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    People are streaming across the border into South Sudan on a daily basis, straining already limited resources in makeshift refugee camps. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps is now building safe educational spaces in the border town of Bentiu, where classes held outside are often interrupted by rain and threats of violence. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Currently working with the Mercy Corps team in South Sudan, I had the honor of being present yesterday as residents celebrated the first year anniversary of their nation's independence.

Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, was alive all weekend with cultural events, parties, parades and visiting foreign dignitaries. The revelry and celebrations went late into the night. Singing, flag waving, and lots of honking car horns punctuated the festivities until dawn.

I was here last year when South Sudan declared its independence from The Republic of Sudan (North Sudan), and the scene in Juba was similar to last year’s excitement, although the turnout was not quite as large. This all despite the unavoidable fact that South Sudan is in an extremely precarious position and faces many challenges, both new and old.

Since last year, the situation and prospects for this new nation have deteriorated to an alarming level. South Sudan and Sudan have nearly come to all out war in the past few months, fighting over international boundaries and revenue-sharing terms for oil that is located in South Sudan, but must be piped-out for export to the north via Sudan.

Security issues and ongoing violence in the border areas between South Sudan and Sudan have resulted in over 200,000 displaced people, most who have fled to refugee camps in the northern areas of South Sudan. This refugee crisis is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of challenges for this young nation.

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Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who lived in the north have now returned to their homeland in South Sudan. But, with what little possessions they could carry, they've returned to a country with very little infrastructure and few opportunities.

I spent most of the past few weeks outside the capital city, in refugee camps and in small rural villages, and it was in these places that I saw the immense challenges the people of this country are facing. In Bentiu, a small border town about two hours by plane from Juba, the mood was much less festive than in the capital. When I asked people in Bentiu how they felt as they approached their first anniversary of Independence, many told me about “unmet expectations” and “disappointment."

“It is one year later,” said Paul Deng, a 25-year old unemployed resident of Bentiu, “and we have seen very little change here. If it wasn’t for the work of Mercy Corps and other aid organizations, I don’t know how we would manage here.”

In Bentiu, basic things like clean water, electricity, roads and schoolhouses are still lacking. Most children go to classes that are held outside under trees. When it starts to rain, class ends abruptly and children run for shelter. Mercy Corps is building schools in the area to alleviate the problem, in addition to helping people get the resources and training they need to support themselves with agriculture and small business. But many challenges still persist.

In the overcrowded refugee camps, humanitarian aid resources are being stretched to the breaking point, as more and more refugees flood in to escape the violence and hunger across the border in Sudan. The refugees are struggling to simply survive. Most of the refugees I spoke with weren’t even aware of the coming independence day.

But there is an optimism here that is undeniable. One family in Bentiu told me how they had to fetch their drinking water from a polluted nearby swamp, but were still confident that their future in an independent nation was bright.

“We are finally free and independent,” said mother of six Hawa Wuor. “My children have a future, and we have our pride after years of suffering.”