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This Sunday, South Sudan will mark six years since it became an independent country. Instead of marking Independence Day with pomp and festivity, the mood in the youngest nation on earth will be one of mourning as people wonder how a country with such potential has ended up in a spiral of conflict, rampant inflation and mass hunger.
Two million South Sudanese – almost one in four of its population – have been forced to flee the country since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013. Nine out of ten South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries are women and children.
A further two million people have been displaced within the country as a result of the conflict, which has spread to most regions, and the current drought, which has devastated much of the country.
As South Sudan marks its Independence Day, over 7.5 million of its people are at risk of severe food insecurity.
South Sudan was already one of the poorest countries on earth before the war but now the medium term outlook for the country is very bleak. Schools and health centres across the country lie empty or burnt to the ground. A generation of children are not in school, adding to the numerous generations who were not schooled as the country fought for its independence from Sudan.
Tragically, violence has become the norm. Every week reports emerge of women and girls being abducted and raped; of men being locked in sheds and then burnt to death because they are from a different ethnic group; of machete attacks in remote villages where aid workers have no access.
The conflict – coupled with extremely poor infrastructure – has left much of the country out of the reach of aid agencies. We can only speculate as to what horrors are being inflicted on ordinary children, women and men who remain trapped in those areas.
My most recent visit to South Sudan was in February, when I spoke to many women and men who had witnessed violence and hunger first hand. Inflation was – and still is – running at over 400 per cent. The economy has collapsed and by February food was beginning to run out.
Monica was one lady I spoke to. She has five children, all under the age of seven. Along with her family, she had to escape from her village when it came under attack in December 2013. They ended up in Juba, the capital city. When Juba erupted in violence in July 2016, Monica again had to flee in terror with her children.
She ended up in Yirol, about 200km from Juba, where Trócaire is working. Yirol has not been as badly affected by the conflict but the drought has had devastating impacts on the region. In February people were already running short of food and the next harvest is not until September. Everyone I spoke to said this was unprecedented. Usually food runs short in July and August before the harvest but not six months before the harvest.
Monica and countless other families were already resorting to foraging wild leaves as their only meal once a day. Despite the hunger, she wanted to stay in Yirol as she felt safe. Monica spoke of being traumatised and how she would be killed if she went back to her home village.
Unfortunately Monica’s story is all too common in South Sudan. Thankfully Trócaire has been able to support Monica, along with 12,000 others like her in Yirol, with emergency food aid and safe water during this crisis.
The last few weeks have seen good rainfall in parts of South Sudan, offering hope that the coming harvest may bring relief to the hunger. However, it is all too often falling on empty fields as people are too afraid to leave the camps and go back to farm their land.
When will the fields of South Sudan be cultivated again to feed its children, women and men? When will schools and health clinics be rebuilt and operational? When can the ordinary people of South Sudan look forward to a peaceful future?
The war in South Sudan has to end. The warring parties, the east African leaders who have influence in the region and the wider international community have to find a solution.
How many more Independence Days will pass before South Sudan can truly celebrate being truly independent; independent from war, from hunger, from trauma.
Eoin Wrenn is Head of Trócaire’s Head of Region for Horn and East Africa.