War in South Sudan The World’s Youngest State Faces Failure


By Bartholomäus Grill in Juba, South Sudan

It was only three years ago that South Sudan celebrated its newfound independence from Sudan. Now, a civil war is tearing the young state apart amid reports of war crimes and ethnic cleansing. At the heart of the conflict is oil and corruption.

The lucky ones manage to make it to the quarantine ward. Lying on cots under a tarp with vomit-buckets at their sides, they at least receive intravenous fluids and antibiotics. The others who drag themselves to the emergency room at Juba Teaching Hospital, the biggest medical facility in the city, have to wait days for treatment, curled up on bare concrete next to fly-infested trash heaps and putrid puddles of waste water — and largely ignored.

“New cholera cases show up every day,” says Isaac Gawar, a young doctor. “They become infected by contaminated food or septic drinking water.” Sweat runs down his face. “We have already seen 655 cases and can hardly handle them all. Fifteen people have died.”

The hospital is just as run-down as the rest of the country. Nothing is left of the euphoria that gripped South Sudan three years ago when it became independent on July 9, 2011. On that day, tens of thousands of people celebrated the country’s newfound freedom, hoping for a better future that has yet to arrive.

Independence came following a decades-long war of secession and, in January 2011, a referendum in which 99 percent of the largely Christian population voted for independence from Muslim Sudan. Peace, though, didn’t last long and a new civil war broke out in December 2013. Over 10,000 people are thought to have lost their lives in the violence since then. A further 1.3 million have been displaced, according to United Nations estimates, and 4 million face starvation.

The tragedy is the result of the conflict between two leading politicians in the country — a pair who actually worked together to ensure South Sudan’s independence: President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. They each represent one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, the Dinka and the Nuer respectively, and their discord was marked by ethnic rivalry from the very beginning. At issue is access to oil, the country’s most valuable resource.

Last July, Kiir fired his entire cabinet including Machar, setting off months of tensions. On December 15, those tensions erupted into armed combat. Kiir accuses his adversary of planning to overthrow him, an allegation that Machar denies. The stand-off ensued when several army divisions defected to the rebels and began fighting against the regular South Sudan military.

Lying in the Streets

Since then, several villages have been obliterated and larger cities like Malakal have been turned into ghost towns, with human rights organizations having accused both sides of committing war crimes. In mid-April, rebels perpetrated a massacre in Bentiu with eyewitnesses reporting hundreds of dead and corpses lying in the streets.

In the remote combat zone, the situation is worsening by the day. Farmers in the region were unable to plant this year because of the violence and the harvest has been correspondingly meager. Furthermore, since the rainy season began in May, many of those suffering from hunger cannot be reached via the region’s muddy roads and have to be supplied by air.

In al-Sabah Children’s Hospital in Juba, the only children’s hospital in the entire country, 20 starving infants and young children with swollen bellies and rail-thin limbs are being treated with nutrients. Ribs clearly outlined behind their paper-thin skin, they whimper quietly, too weak to scream.

The mother of one nine-month-old girl relates how her husband was shot by the rebels and half her village wiped out. She managed to survive the 600 kilometer trek from Malakal to Juba; her child is little more than skin and bones and has the drawn face of an old woman.

In the three years since independence, the country’s Health Ministry has not even managed to renovate the few hospitals in Juba. One day after agreeing to an interview with SPIEGEL, the minister cancelled it again — he’s not feeling well, one of his secretaries reported from behind her vast, empty desk in her bare office. She and her coworkers would appear to have little to do, spending much of the day simply waiting for evening to come.

There are some 200,000 civil servants working in South Sudan’s several ministries and agencies, many of them former independence fighters who needed work once the wars of secession ended. But they have little idea how to establish a modern, functioning state.

‘Results Have Been Poor’

Juba, a dusty expanse of houses with a population of 500,000, has been transformed in recent years into something like the aid industry’s global capital. Currently, some 200 development organizations are active here, some state sponsored, others religious in nature and still others private. In addition, various UN agencies are here as well. Because there are so many of them, the city has introduced special license plates for vehicles belonging to NGOs.

In the last three years, it is likely that no other country in the world has received as much per capita aid as South Sudan. In the first year alone, the country received $1.4 billion. “When compared to the effort, the results have been poor,” says one EU diplomat. He says that much of the aid money has stayed in Juba, with the central government seeming to have little control in the rest of the country.

The hurdles facing South Sudan were high from the start. Over three-quarters of its estimated population of 10 million are illiterate, about a third are chronically undernourished and only 1 percent have access to electricity. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world. On the most recent Fragile States Index, released last week, South Sudan is at the very top, ahead of even Somalia.

Yet South Sudan could potentially be a wealthy country. It sits on top of large oil reserves and has valuable minerals, tropical hardwoods and fertile farmland that could theoretically produce enough to feed half of Africa. Prior to the outbreak of violence, the country’s oil wells were producing 350,000 barrels per day, a total that has now dropped to 160,000 because of the fighting. The government receives $68 per barrel, resulting in projected revenues of around $4 billion for the current fiscal year. But the money has evaporated. Even prior to 2011, a confidential audit found that billions of South Sudanese petro-dollars were being redirected to bank accounts in Geneva. Following independence, the amount being embezzled quadrupled.

In June 2012, President Salva Kiir sent a letter to 75 leading civil servants demanding that they reimburse the state for stolen oil revenues. “We have forgotten what we once fought for and have begun enriching ourselves at the expense of our people,” the autocratic head of state wrote. He and his cabinet often speak publicly of transparency, good governance and the fight against corruption. “Democracy is in our blood,” Kiir says. He knows what Western donor nations want to hear.

The Struggle Continues

In recent weeks, the government has busied itself with preparing for South Sudan’s third birthday. Huge posters have been erected reading: “The Struggle Continues. Our Mission Isn’t Yet Fulfilled.” Those displaced by the recent violence, such as John Kom Yak, find the billboards insulting. Together with his family, the 47-year-old fled to Tomping, a camp on the outskirts of Juba that is protected by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS. The peacekeeping mission is soon to be expanded to included 12,500 troops; its mandate was extended by six months at the end of May.

They will have to stay much longer than that, says Yak, a tall Nuer man with decorative scars on his forehead. He is sitting in the shadow of an acacia and playing dominoes with a couple of other men. They stop to show photos on their mobile phone of atrocities committed in their village. “This is what government soldiers did, those damned Dinka,” says Yak. Several members of his family were killed in the violence.

Following independence, Yak joined the village police force and earned enough to support his extended family of 11. Now, he has nothing left aside from the clothes he is wearing, his uniform and a few keepsakes. “We feel like prisoners but we have to stay here. If we leave the camp, we will be slaughtered by the Dinka,” he says. Tribal identification has become much stronger than patriotism, Yak says. “Nation building was just an illusion.”

In Camp Tomping, some 20,000 internally displaced people have found refuge. They live in lean-tos and sleep on damp mattresses; there is only one latrine for every 65 camp residents. When they go to fetch water from the tanker truck, they sink up to their ankles in mud.

Many of the refugees have lost all hope for a stable peace. They also don’t think much of the deal signed by President Kiir and rebel leader Machar on June 10. After all, two previous ceasefires, one signed in January and another in May, were broken by both sides within days.

Losing an Enemy

This time, though, neighboring states have threatened sanctions should the most recent deal be ignored. It calls for a joint, provisional government to be formed within 60 days in an effort to prevent complete collapse.

“We will establish peace and prosperity,” says David Yau Yau, a member of the Murle ethnic group. Once a student of theology, Yau Yau became one of the country’s most notorious warlords fighting their own regional conflicts. After losing an election, he scraped together a group of rebels and began terrorizing the population in the state of Jonglei. “We are partly responsible for all of these events,” Yau Yau admits. “But now we want reconciliation.” The events he is referring to include raids, rapes, the enslavement of children and ethnic cleansing.

The real roots of the crisis are the systematic discrimination of his region, Yau Yau says. There are no paved roads, no schools and no hospitals, he says. Yau Yau is demanding that his region get a fair share of the oil revenues and wants to administer his county of Pibor himself. He recently traveled to the capital with a 10-member delegation to negotiate the details and was hosted at a dinner given by head-of-state Kiir.

Just a few months ago, such a trip might have ended in death. Indeed, Yau Yau has already survived one assassination attempt. He was an archenemy of the president, with his fighters battling government troops and killing or expelling Dinka and Nuer from the region he controlled. More recently, though, the warlord has become an ally of the president’s. Indeed, Kiir has even made Yau Yau a general and wants to integrate his fighters into the regular military. The president’s list of adversaries has now become shorter.


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