South Sudan: A Difficult Birth

Despite a peace agreement and a referendum on independence, violence and internal conflict continue to unsettle South Sudan. Image by Cedric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2011.

In January 2005, a peace agreement between North and South Sudan ended Africa's longest civil war, with casualties estimated at 2 million people. "The Final Walk to Freedom" is the name that the People's Liberation Army in Sudan (SPLA) gave the transition years leading up to the referendum for self-determination in January 2011. On July 9 of this year, South Sudan became independent, taking control of 75 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves. Despite this fact, South Sudan remains one of the poorest and least developed countries of the world.

I became interested in the country last year after reading an NGO report which said that South Sudan might be “one of the biggest emergencies in Africa in 2010.” The report indicated that the international community had abandoned a country where women and children were frequently targeted and where the peace-keeping forces were powerless. The increase of violence, as well as the lack of security and of development, threatened to plunge the southern part of the country into great instability on the eve of the referendum.

I went to South Sudan for the first time in summer 2010 to conduct a visual survey. I wanted to look at the choices facing authorities and the impact of those choices on the population, especially in terms of health, quality of life and the instability that persists despite the "end" of the war five years before.

Apart from the fact that there were no more bombings, the situation was almost the same as it was during the civil war: no access to healthcare, no roads, few schools, no access to water, increasing insecurity and a very low purchasing power.

I was able to document the humanitarian situation with the help of Doctors Without Borders and also Veterinarians Without Borders, a group that assisted in remote areas where pastoralist communities depend on livestock for their survival.

Everyone expected a vote in favor of independence, but preparations for the referendum were behind schedule. And even if there would be independence, it was expected that there could be inter-tribal conflicts in the south. So I went back to witness the historic vote. During this second stay, I focused on several major issues, including the constitution of this new country, the Abyei region which was already a point of tension, the returnees who were beginning to come back to the south to vote and to resettle, and the oil issue. Soon after the joy of the successful referendum, there were tensions as splinter groups demanded to be heard.

In May, the Sudanese Armed Forces took control of Abyei, violating the 2005 peace agreements and leaving many dead and thousands displaced. Tension between north and south focused around Abyei, triggered by disagreement between Dinka Ngok people and the Misseriya, the Arab herdsmen who needed to cross the town so that their cattle would have access to pastureland and the Kiir River. When Abyei was taken, it only confirmed the fears of the authorities in South Sudan who had anticipated that different splinter groups of ex-SPLA rebels would stake out a line circling out from Abyei and going up to the border with Ethiopia, cutting off the main oil-producing regions from the rest of the south.

The following month, in a bid to hold onto fertile land and destroy any move towards autonomy, the government in Khartoum revived the war in the Nuba mountains, bombing northern SPLA forces who fought with those from the south, as well as civilians who, since the division of the country, have, de facto, been made citizens of the north, without the planned democratic consultation.

Meanwhile, in the Blue Nile State, on the other side of the new frontier,the Sudanese Armed Forces bombed the population, former brothers-in-arms during the civil war who complained that their area has been neglected and marginalized for years. This population has now largely fled towards Ethiopia and South Sudan.

This summer, during my third visit, I went to meet the displaced persons south of Abyei who had fled the fighting. Some have been able to find refuge in towns or villages where they could get help quickly, while others, isolated, remained several days without assistance. The government in Juba finds it difficult to support those returning from the north, but in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal State, some of those who received a piece of land from the government told me they would give the name of Jerusalem to their new home.

I will now continue my work, six months after independence, with the same intention--to look at a situation without false sentimentalism and to facilitate a greater understanding.