As South Sudan marks the third anniversary of its independence, Trócaire’s Faith Kasina meets people living in camps outside the capital city to hear their stories.
It was her disarming toothless smile that drew me to pick her from the bed on which she was laid, her petite body drenched in sweat from the midday heat.
She is Madelina. Four months old.
She will never know her father. He was killed almost six months ago; another victim of the renewed ethnic clashes that have engulfed South Sudan.
Madelina, her five older siblings and her 30-year-old mother Zainab Rahma, now live in a UN camp for displaced families on the outskirts of Juba, the country’s capital city. Trócaire, in partnership with the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (DMI) Sisters, has distributed food items and supported psycho-social counselling to families living here.
“Smile for me,” Zainab calls out to her, a wide smile across her face. Madelina immediately obliges.
“Most days I wake-up and think of killing my children and I so we can escape this life,” she tells me. “But then I see that smile and I choose to live.”
Zainab’s brave face does little to hide her anguish. She holds out an old picture of her and her three children. Then she goes quiet.
“This was just five years ago. Look how beautiful I was. We were happy. This was our life,” she says.
Zabib Rahma 30, looks at an old picture of her family as her four-month-old daughter, Madelina, sleeps in her arms, at the UN House IDP camp, in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. (Photo: Faith Kasina)
At the time, Zainab lived with her three children in neighbouring Uganda, while her husband worked in Juba. South Sudan was still marred with conflict, leading the family to spend time away from each other.
Then came 2011. South Sudan was declared independent. This only meant one thing – she could go back to her husband. They would finally be a family.
“That day, my husband called me. He was so happy he couldn’t talk,” she trails off, laughing heartily. “He was like a little boy. We talked about the children and made plans for us to return to Juba. We were coming home”.
A few months later and Zainab and the children had began settling into their new life in Juba. A family once again.
“We had a roof over our heads, food to eat, good education for the children and even dreamed of saving for the future,” she smiles faintly, staring into the distance.
When South Sudan became the world’s newest country, the rest of the world, myself included, witnessed the joy, jubilation and immense hope that filled the streets.
Peter Malis, volunteering with the DMI Sisters, vividly remembers that day.
“I was there in the stadium, clad in my cultural wear, celebrating with the rest of the country,” he reminisces. “I have never felt as proud of my country as I did on that day. I was hopeful that life was going to be different.”
Fast forward to mid-December last year and the tables turned. A political feud between the country’s two top leaders quickly tore the nation along ethnic lines, reopening deep historical wounds of tribal conflict and war.
As one retired soldier, now living in a camp for displaced people in Nimule in the lush plains east of the country, told me recently, “the very people who fought for their freedom turned against each other”.
Nyapuka Gattoi, living a few metres from Zainab, can’t hide her cynicism.
“What is there to celebrate?” she asks, looking squarely at me as a mild sneer creeps up from her upper lip. “Last time I saw my husband was in December when we were running for our lives, away from Bentiu (Unity State). I don’t know if he is alive. I have children and can’t provide for them. Tell me, what is there to celebrate?
“South Sudan is still under war so we are not yet free. Maybe when peace returns and I can go back to my home, then I’ll be free.”
Nyapuka Gattoi, 26, and her one-year old daughter Nayagua, at their ‘home’ at the UN House IDP camp on Juba, South Sudan. Nyapuka fled her original home in Bentiu town, in the northern conflict-ridden state of Unity, six months ago. She has not seen or heard from her husband since. (Photo: Faith Kasina)
In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the numerous efforts to broker a peaceful resolution to the crisis have borne little fruit, marred by allegations of dishonouring of signed agreements by the warring parties.
On the frontlines, fighting is still ongoing. Lives are still being lost.
People are still fleeing their homes, seeking safety in displacement camps. Farms are still unploughed.
Yet, there is still hope.
“No one can deny that it is an ugly situation,” says Bishop Erkolano Tombe, Caritas’ Bishop Resident in the country. “But South Sudan has a great future. We have natural resources and great wealth and can benefit from these only if we are responsible with our freedom. It is painful, but it is passing.”
As Peter rightly concludes, “It is still our nation. We may be suffering now but it is still our nation.”