With the stability of the world's newest nation, South Sudan, endangered, Catholic Relief Services' Brigid O'Connor reports on her experiences in one of the most troubled areas, Bor in Jonglei State.
The recent conflict in Jonglei State, South Sudan, has repercussions far beyond who takes power. It creates a crisis of confidence that shakes the very foundation of how people go about their lives. While the media might focus on ethnic tensions, the truth of the matter is that every South Sudanese, regardless of tribe, wants the same thing, the prospect of a normal life.
Predictability is not a luxury that anyone in Jonglei has right now. People want to be able to go to work and rely on a salary this month and next. They want to be able to send their children to school and know that there is a school to send them to. All of this is gone. If anyone in Jonglei right now can plan more than 12 hours ahead they are doing well. Most are planning in one or two hour increments. They're asking themselves, will I be able to get water? Food? Will I be able to find a place to sleep? Will I get out of where I am safely? Farmers have lost their tools and homes. Shopkeepers have lost their stock. People are now living what all South Sudanese dread, having to pick up and run without knowing where they are headed.
We're currently in the dry season. For those who have never been to Jonglei, they are not familiar with our cotton soil that turns the land into a muddy impassable mess once the rains begin. The dry season is an important time to focus on development, to undertake projects such as constructing roads, building dikes, digging water ponds for livestock, and starting fisheries. It is also a time to build connections between isolated communities. Isolation is a problem in South Sudan and when you're permanently cut off from your neighbors that are a mere 30 miles away it can be very hard to see them as anything other than strangers, or even enemies. The roads that Catholic Relief Services helped build over the past two years, through the Jonglei Food Security Program (JFSP), have transformed strangers into neighbors. Roads are routes to commerce, dialogue and understanding. Dikes and fisheries give people stability and a way to be self-sufficient and provide for their families.
While we may have missed the window to continue developing infrastructure this year, the rains and cultivation in Jonglei will begin in April. If this crisis continues and people aren't able to plant, then all of Jonglei State and South Sudan in general will face a prolonged hunger crisis. We could lose an entire year's harvests. Everyone will be affected.
The situation in Jonglei needs to normalize quickly. People need to feel safe enough to return home and go back to their villages. In order to be a farmer you need stability. There is no point in farming if you might have to abandon your crops in two weeks time. Whatever pressure the international community can apply to the key parties to stop this conflict is essential. The Church has long been a neutral and trusted party. The Church has the ability to skillfully mediate a truce if allowed to do so.
There must be a secure settlement between the warring parties. People need to have confidence in whatever agreement is reached. Three generations of South Sudanese have seen peace agreements fall apart. It is going to take a lot to persuade the nation that whatever piece of paper is signed will hold and that there is a mechanism in place, such as the UN, to make sure it's honored. If that doesn't happen, everyone will lose. The loss of achievements that have been built so painstakingly over the past few years by the South Sudanese is a price too high to pay.
I've worked in Sudan and South Sudan for over 30 years. I've sadly seen this trend of conflict and displacement before. But while others may see this as a hopeless situation, I don't. It has been my great privilege to work with the South Sudanese. The environment they've grown up in is incredibly inhospitable: disease, displacement, hunger and conflict. The fact that they've survived into adulthood and begun to build better lives for themselves and their children makes them remarkable. The South Sudanese are a resilient and resourceful people.
These past few years in Jonglei the JFSP has employed and invested in more than 300 local staff. Most of them had little to no education or work experience when they were hired and yet over time they were able to oversee projects that motivated more than 100,000 people in remote, rural communities to believe in themselves and their ability to forge a better future while they developed infrastructure and learned once again to live off the land. The raw human potential in Jonglei State is palpable. While we may have lost infrastructure and commodities during this conflict, if we can reassemble our staff we can rebuild. In order to rebuild we need the conflict to stop. Our South Sudanese staff needs to feel relatively safe to come back and work. They need to know that they can function and do their work without getting shot.
Brigid O'Connor is chief-of-party for the Jonglei Food Security Program a USAID funded project run by CRS. She has been based in Bor, South Sudan, for the past three years.