One year ago today, fighting broke out on the streets of South Sudan’s capital, Juba. The violence was fueled by a political conflict that quickly spread throughout the country, and tens of thousands of innocent civilians fled the terrifying attacks.
Not even three years had gone by since gaining independence, and the young nation was thrown from hope into a humanitarian crisis of tragic magnitude. In the past year, tens of thousands of people have been killed, more than 1.9 million have fled their homes, and more than 6 million people are struggling with serious food shortages.
Here, Mohammed Qazilbash, our Country Director in South Sudan, discusses the harsh realities that demand our attention, as well as the vision for a peaceful future that we must continue helping communities work to achieve.
As we reflect on the one-year mark of South Sudan’s latest conflict, I’m not reflecting on how much we’ve accomplished, but on how much still needs to be done.
It’s true that South Sudanese civilians and the international community worked together to avert a famine this year — a hard-fought and important effort. But the threat of hunger still looms and could prove more devastating in the year to come if there is no peace.
Too many farmers have fled their land, too many traders are scared to bring food to the market, too many fields continue to be destroyed by stampeding troops, and the work necessary to hold flooding at bay cannot progress.
I think a lot about how we can create a more sustainable approach to Mercy Corps’ humanitarian response here in South Sudan. At times, the urgent needs seem overwhelming, but a better humanitarian response is possible — one that is determined by community needs and helps lay the foundation for early recovery.
Our work in South Sudan
- Delivering clean water and improving sanitation to keep families healthy in crowded displacement camps.
- Building safe, temporary learning spaces for children to continue their education.
- Distributing seeds and tools for families to grow food in relatively safer areas where they have taken refuge.
- Providing financial support for traders to replenish their stock and resume activities to bring food and goods to local markets.
- Helping families earn an income by working on projects that improve their land and communities.
Even if there isn't active fighting, no place in South Sudan escapes the impact of the war. Nyanyang, 10, and her sister, Nyajok, 13, are lucky to live in the relatively peaceful village of Ganyiel. But since nearly 45,000 people have sought refuge here, local resources are stretched thin — and traders aren't bringing as much food to the market. These girls walked two hours to get to the nearest market, but they couldn’t afford the prices so went home empty handed. Photo: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps
Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 marked the end of the two-decade Second Sudanese Civil War — and paved the road for South Sudan’s 2011 independence — the international community has channeled billions of dollars into South Sudan. We have invested in growing local enterprise and expanding the private sector, increasing agricultural productivity, opening access to educational opportunities, and building the capacity of local governments.
Every day, as this war continues, those fragile development gains are gradually lost.
We can still see the returns on those investments, but they are becoming harder to spot. In northern Unity State, our team met a youth group that is organizing soccer tournaments as a way for young boys and girls to forget the hardship and trauma of war. They’re doing this on their own, without any financial support from the international community.
“The international community has forgotten us,” the youth told us.
Mercy Corps hasn’t forgotten them. While most of the funding for development has been allocated to meet lifesaving needs, we’re also trying to address the longer-term needs of young people — the people who will rebuild South Sudan in the years to come.
We’re training youth farmers on better planting practices. We hire young people to help with humanitarian distributions. We create employment opportunities for extremely vulnerable households, and many times, that means employing the eldest child in the house when an elderly or disabled parent cannot work.
Chan, 22, is a great example of how emergency programming can be sustainable. He worked to build a drainage canal in Abiemnom in northern Unity State, where seasonal rains often flood sorghum fields, markets and community spaces, making life impossible. People can’t walk through the mud and have trouble accessing schools and health facilities. They can’t farm. Water points and latrines overflow, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases.
Chan’s mother is a widow and has no income. But with six small children at home, she couldn’t find the time to participate in Mercy Corps’ cash for work activity, which was designed to help alleviate the flooding and provide vulnerable households with the cash they needed to meet urgent needs. Instead, she sent Chan. He worked for 25 days.
“It was the first job I ever had,” he said. “It was a new experience for me.”
Chan used the money he earned to open a small business in Abiemnom. His daily income is now helping support the family. For the first time since he can remember, he has money to put food on the table, and his family does not have to be entirely reliant on farming.
And he’s looking ahead to expand his business. “As I earn more, I’ll buy more goods and begin selling more things. And I’ll continue to use the money to help my brothers and sisters go to school,” he said.
Chan admitted that many young boys have been recruited into the military and that he is one of the few lucky people in his hometown who had an alternative.
“There is nothing for youth here. No jobs. No activities. Youth have no voice. They have no control over anything,” he said.
So many young people in South Sudan are telling us they feel forgotten and marginalized. But when I hear stories like Chan’s, I see a small window of hope.
We must continue our humanitarian response to help people survive the immediate risks of this crisis. But as this conflict wears on, our community has to think outside of the typical emergency response framework and consider the needs ahead.
We need to find a strategy that helps rebuild economic relationships in communities torn apart by violence. And this strategy needs to include young people and must help lay the foundation for peace by rewarding and encouraging collaboration rather than conflict.
At the root of this strategy is protection. In the most remote and conflict-affected areas of this country, there are unsettling numbers of unaccompanied minors. Children have been separated from their families. They have lost parents and elder siblings to this war.
Over the last year, the systems that once provided for and protected these children — schools, clinics and social safety nets — have crumbled. They need our attention and focus now more than ever.
Yalo and his family live off food rations. He is one of many young people in South Sudan who have had their education interrupted because schools are closed or destroyed by the fighting. Photo: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps
Before this conflict, we were building safe, temporary learning spaces for children who had grown up as refugees to restart their education in their new country. And we haven’t given up.
We created these same spaces in displacement camps in northern Unity State, where over 4,000 children can participate in creative and educational activities, giving them a safe place to play, continue their education and feel a sense of normalcy despite the crisis around them.
Now in southern Unity State, we’ve begun building 60 more temporary learning spaces and rehabilitating 25 existing schoolrooms, which will provide the first opportunity some of these children have had to go to school in a year.
As we look ahead, we must address the root causes of this crisis — war. Protecting those affected by this conflict is Mercy Corps’ key priority. We must protect them from violence, from displacement, from hunger, and from losing their livelihoods and assets — their future.
Throughout this, we must do everything possible to preserve human dignity and uplift the people and communities we work with as they struggle to cope with the challenges of day-to-day life in a war zone. There is no one approach and we know that any solution must first begin with peace.
How you can help
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