by MARIELLE SMITH
As my Ethiopian Airlines plane touches down amidst a swarm of military and United Nations choppers, I nervously pull my hands through my hair at the thought of the freshly printed tourist visa tucked in my passport. The army controls the main airport here – boys in dark sunglasses clutch almost comically oversized AK47s, and bullet holes scatter the walls and windows.
South Sudan is no place for tourists. Yet here I am, drawn back to this continent yet again, looking for answers to questions about my own life and about the work my Dad had been doing here for years.
I’m heading to Melut, in Upper Nile State. It’s the wet season now, so the roads have been closed. The only way up north is aboard a tin boat with a deeply unreliable outboard motor (later, I’d learn how to bail water from said sinking boat with half cut-open jerry cans, shivering and holding in my tears).
On board, we pass the United Nations compound – their 4WDs, speedboats, barges and cargo are a shrine on the side of the White Nile – they mean business. I feel immediately comforted. Help is here now. The people are safe.
But mere moments later a barge carrying hundreds of people squeezed between cargo and animals drifts sluggishly past. These, I’m told, are refugees, who with Independence have been forced out of their homes and sent South. I don’t think this boat can keep afloat much longer. And I know that when it finally stops, these people have no home to go to.
Welcome to the new South Sudan. Protection from the blood and the burning and the horror of war to your right; a haunting question mark over your future to your left.
When this, the world’s newest country, finally gained Independence eight weeks ago, its people celebrated in a frenzy of colour and music while the rest of the world watched on – cautiously taking in the sight of faces spread with relief and glee on their television screens. After decades of failed attempts to put the goddamn guns down, was freedom here? Does life start now?
Yet now here, I find a community completely crushed by a stupid, senseless war.
Children with hair stained yellow – just one of the physical signs of acute malnutrition – sit motionless on the side of the road. Some clutch ‘Plumpy Nut’ in their fragile hands, the staple of emergency malnutrition treatments in this part of the world. As I look into their eyes and force a smile, my heart cramps up.
It’s like a World Vision advertisement but with no heart wrenching music playing in the background and no cut away to a rescued child’s smile – just a little boy wrapping his warm fingers tightly around the loose fabric of my khakis. He’s the same age as my nephew. Yet where my nephew’s face is all smiles and diamond-sparkly eyes, this child’s face is almost… mangled. I feel sick, numb and cold. These children have been robbed.
I head to the markets, which should be the bustling, chaotic centre of this town, but instead are almost completely bare. The North has closed the borders now, cutting off whole communities from food until the rains stop and the roads to the South can reopen. And with everyone’s efforts of the past few decades focused on not becoming another war statistic, the skills to grow food or raise animals were lost long ago. It occurs to me that I’ve found one of the few places in the world where money means nothing – you simply can’t buy all the food you need to survive in Melut. I cast my eyes over a handful of tomatoes, a few potatoes and a fishmonger gutting his catch in the putrid mud. This is less food than I’d throw out in a month.
Beyond the hunger, trauma creeps into this place. A few weeks earlier, a solider accidentally fired his rifle ten kilometres out of town. Mums and dads dropped whatever they were holding, yanked their children into their arms and ran from town. They ran for somewhere – anywhere – safer. They ran, literally, for their lives.
And a family, living nearby, tells of a stranger dressed in white approaching their house. Recognising the clothing colour favoured by their enemies, the trembling children clutched each others’ hands and hid, in silence, under their beds. When I was their age, I was scared of monsters. How blessed I was that not even in my wildest, scariest childhood nightmares did I see the monsters these children know.
Yet past the hunger and the trauma, there is hope.
I meet Joyce. I can almost see waves of energy coming off her as she tells me about an organisation she is starting with other women in the village. Their plans are humble – together, they hope, they can attract the interest of the various aid organisations now entering South Sudan and get some help. They’re not choosy about the kind of help –but they are firm in their objective: women in Melut need to work. With work, comes money. With money, comes independence. With independence, comes a future.
Sweetly confusing my interest in her plans with a desire to take part, I find myself setting off with Joyce on a 30 minute trek into a village guarded by scrawny goats. Her face spreads into an enormous grin as, for the second time, my Havaianas snap and fall hostage to the thick, steaming mud. We fish them out and tie them back together with grass, laughing, and enter a three-roomed house made of tin.
Now that I’m here, I’m eager to begin. But like anywhere in the world, these women are perfectionists and they like to fuss. So we sit down in a sweltering room, made hotter by an open stove on the floor, and prepare coffee. It’s not quite the hazelnut latte my best friend and I start each working day with, but it’s smooth and deliciously sweet.
When the meeting finally starts, it moves slowly – translated from the local language, Dinka, to English then Arabic and back again. We talk about what they want from their futures, and what they hope for their daughters. We talk about the hideous fact that almost a whole country of women can’t read and sign a government form, recognise their name or count their change. And they ask after women in Australia – Are we safe? Are we equal? Are we free?
No one mentions the war – only tomorrow matters in this room. I had always suspected that life is defined by the moments that make us feel fragile – that make us realise that living is a privilege, not a given. In this room full of optimists, chatting and planning and dreaming like I do with my girlfriends and colleagues back home, I now know this as sure as I know my shoe size or my date of birth.
Together, these women have mapped out a plan for their futures. The plan starts with some agricultural training from a local aid group, so they can grow food to sell at the market, and ends with access to small loans that will enable other women to finance their own business opportunities.
I size it up in my head with the numerous policies and strategies I’ve written in my career, and conclude it’s a good plan. I believe it will work, at the very least for these women here today. So I let myself smile, and not forcedly now. For the first time since I arrived here, I’m left without a doubt that despite the obvious and immense obstacles in their way, better things will come to South Sudan.
It’s now been just over a year since Independence. I haven’t been back to Melut, so I can’t tell you whether Joyce and those women got their agricultural training in the end.
I am in Africa again as I write this, yet I can’t bring myself to return to South Sudan. To be honest, I’m still scared – not only of what I saw and felt when I arrived there – but to find out. With rising food shortages, violence erupting along the border and a refugee crisis of epic proportions unfolding – it seems like catastrophe is just around the corner again. It seems that after decades of destruction and chaos, these women’s journey is nowhere near over.
And, heartbreakingly, it’s starting to seem that the hope I saw in Melut may have come from a community suspended in time – precariously balanced between its ghastly past and an even more frightening future.
SUDANESE CIVIL WAR: Key Facts
– Originally one country, the regions that now make up South Sudan and Sudan were embroiled in two bitter civil wars from 1955 – 1972 and 1983 – 2005.
– According to the CIA World Fact Book, the second civil war and its effects led to the displacement of more than four million people and, according to some estimates, over two million deaths.
– After decades of conflict, South Sudan finally gained independence on 9 July 2011, making it the world’s newest country.
– Right now, South Sudan is in the midst of a devastating refugee crisis. Doctors Without Borders estimates there are approximately 170,000 people in South Sudan who have fled violence and food shortages in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. Refugee camps are facing health crises of epic proportions – even for an emergency situation – with reports of five child deaths each day in one camp alone.
To donate to Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian medical organisation currently working in refugee camps in South Sudan, visit https://donate.msf.org.au/donate_appeal.cfm.
Marielle Smith has worked in public policy since graduating from the ANU in 2006. She is currently traveling in Ghana and continuing her work with supporting women and children. Next year she will study a Masters of Public Policy at the London School of Economics.