By Tom Purekal
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) staffer Tom Purekal, who is based in Juba, reflects on the recent violence in South Sudan. This piece was written just before a ceasefire was signed.
It was four and half-hours of harrowing road. Awerial County is only 75 miles from South Sudan’s capital, Juba, but the rocky dirt roads make for slow bone rattling travel. There were five of us, on our way to Mingkaman Village, a town of 80,0000 on the banks of the Nile River that had absorbed more than double its population in the past month. People arrived from neighboring Jonglei State in boatful after boatful of frightened passengers fleeing from the violence that has ravaged their towns and villages these past few weeks.
As we reached Mingkaman houses began to dot the horizon, then suddenly a large concentration of people exploded into view. They were everywhere: bathing in the Nile, huddling under trees, each person and family trying to find a scrap of shelter from the sun. That 6-mile stretch of people grows by the hour as yet another boat docks and unloads its passengers. The banks of the Nile teems with the weary and the desperate.
When the violence broke out mid-December they left their homes with nothing. They traveled by foot, hid in bushes, and eventually rode in boats too overcrowded to offer more than standing room only. For most, the trip ranged from 8 to 24 hours. There was no bathroom to use. No clean water to drink. No food for them to eat. Each boat carries about 100 people. Each day between 1,000-3,000 new people arrive. The conditions of the boat rides left many of the already traumatized even more shaken.
Fortunately it is the dry season. For now people can make do with the minimal shade the skeletal trees provide. But in the coming months when the rains begin they’re going to need more than branches to protect them from the weather. They are forced by necessity to stay near the Nile. They need the water it provides. The conditions, however, are miserable. Mosquitoes swarm the place. People bathe, drink, and relieve themselves in the river. Cases of diarrhea are rampant. We can expect numerous deaths unless conditions improve.
The schools in Mingkaman have been converted into makeshift clinics to treat the injured, the ill, and expectant mothers. The children have lost the school year. That is what chills even the most seasoned aid worker. This was supposed to be the first generation of South Sudanese to grew up not knowing what it’s like to live in a displacement camp or as a refugee. This was the first generation that was supposed to grow up to break that cycle of violence and loss that has plagued South Sudan for decades.
Sadly, Mingkaman is not the only settlement. The government estimates more than 400,000 people across the country have been displaced. Neighboring Uganda receives 3,000 refugees daily. Official estimates confirm at least 1,000 dead, while organizations like Human Rights Watch say it’s closer to 10,000. Regardless of the number, the truth of the matter is that no one person in South Sudan has been left unscathed. Everyone knows someone who was affected.
All we have left now is to respond and to work towards a more peaceful united South Sudan. Now more than ever I am convinced that development work needs to go hand in hand with more intentional efforts to restore and repair fractured relationships. South Sudan needs more than straight up development work, it needs healing. It is naïve to think that band-aid solutions that treat only the symptoms of violence rather than the myriad of causes are enough to get South Sudan on the road to progress.
Historically we’ve seen countries coming out of organized violence or very involved violence facing similar challenges. Reconciliation is essential to move South Sudan forward. This is not a natural process that happens on its own. Catholic Relief Services has in the past and remains committed to development and intentional peacebuilding that promotes healing and reconciliation, restoring damaged relationships. If the root causes of conflict are not addressed we can expect these cycles of violence to continue. We can expect to see more displacement. All agencies need to work together to meet the immediate needs of the South Sudanese, while we also work to mend the fissures that have fractured communities. This generation of South Sudanese deserve as much. The next generation of South Sudanese should never know what it is like to live constantly looking over their shoulder or in a camp far from home.
Tom Purekal is a CRS Business Development Manager and has overseen peace building and governance projects in South Sudan. He is based in Juba, South Sudan.