South Sudan's unhappy birthday

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMillions of families are living in South Sudan as refugees, Anne Soy reports

The car-clogged tarmac and rising skylines in South Sudan's capital, Juba, give the impression of a country rising from the rubble after decades of war.

But beneath the cosmetics of state building, a nation born just three years ago is crumbling back to a dark past where death, famine and disease rule - and making new generations of bush fighters and refugees.

Just a few hundred metres from the stadium where a fractured elite will hold South Sudan's third birthday celebrations, John Wirol's family are living like refugees in their own city, under tarpaulin and practically underwater when it rains.

"We thought that if we get this country, then everyone will enjoy life. Then as for this third birthday, well I am not even celebrating."

More than 100,000 of the 1.5 million people displaced by fighting are living in UN peacekeeping bases, cowed into confinement by marauding countrymen in a new civil war that has split the nation along ethnic lines, although the catalyst was purely political.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hopes were high when the new country was born three years ago

Shrugging off accusations of war crimes and a man-made famine that could affect a third of the population, the country's leaders are determined to celebrate.

"If you have a birthday happening tomorrow for example, will you stop this birthday because this and that has happened? You will continue to celebrate in spite of the good and bad," South Sudan's Vice-President James Wani Igga told the BBC.

After five decades of fighting Sudan for its freedom, the rush to a referendum on independence and declaration three years ago was heady.

The cries that went up across a battle-scarred land as more than nine million South Sudanese finally found a place to call home were heartfelt.

Stitching together more than 60 ethnic groups after a civil war that killed two million people, united most against the north but turned many communities against one another, was always going to take more than flag-hoisting.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption More than a million people have fled their homes over the past year

South Sudan - Timeline of trouble

1962-2005: Mainly Christian and animist South Sudanese fight mostly Muslim, Arabic-speaking northerners

2011: South Sudan gains independence; hundreds of thousands of refugees go home

One of world's least developed countries

Numerous rebellions

Governed by former rebel group SPLA

2013: President Salva Kiir sacks Vice-President Riek Machar and accuses him of plotting a coup

Machar denies charges but heads a rebellion

Fighting takes on ethnic dimension between Kiir's Dinka community and Machar's Nuers

Thousands killed, about a million forced from their homes

But after stumbling from divorce to civility with Khartoum in the first two years of nationhood, South Sudan then turned on itself.

Political squabbling between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar quickly spilled onto the streets and into massacres.

Ceasefire commitments brokered over weeks at luxury Ethiopian hotels have been broken within hours and talks cancelled due to petty grievances and pride.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Emmanuel Igunza visited a screening centre for South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia

But Mr Igga says that talks with rebels led by Mr Machar, who was stripped of most of his powers last year and dubbed a power-hungry "prophet of doom" in December by Mr Kiir, will soon lead to a transitional unity government and peace.

But Roman Catholic Bishop of Juba Santo Loku Pio Doggale says that leaders are more interested in preaching peace to buy time than in silencing guns.

"Well, I really don't know what you mean by political leadership because our political leadership at this particular moment is fractured... People do not know who to follow," he said.

"The agenda of peace is not very clear. As we talk peace, there are people mobilising for war."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some say too much money has been given to South Sudan's army

Former Minister Lual Deng, now a think tank analyst, says that a policy of "buying peace" with a huge army and government, is why an oil-rich nation's economy has fallen into "intensive care" and sent fighters tired of waiting for services back to the bush.

Money for roads to increase farming disappeared in billion-dollar corruption scandals.

Now the scarcity of basic goods, including salt in parts of the country, has sparked hyperinflation.

A famine that could affect four million people is looming, with most people blaming the warring leaders.

"It's within their hands to stop the slide that we're seeing around the country, and it's in their control to keep it going," says Sue Lautze, head of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organixation in the country.

She calls a killer outbreak of cholera that has affected thousands of people in South Sudan "the world's most unfortunate coincidence".

In Juba hospital's cholera ward, few cases remain, but the sound of patients emptying themselves fills the air.

Whether charities can deal with its spread, mass hunger and homelessness rests on filling a $1bn (£580m) deficit quickly.

"The situation where we are now is not the worst, but it is perfectly catastrophic," says Ms Lautze, who laments the international community's lack of engagement on issues such as accountability and corruption that caused the crash.

For economist Peter Biar, it represents an opportunity to forge a nation in more than name.

"In the history of South Sudan, people have always come back from these moments of rupture, and institutions have changed and improved in certain ways."

At Juba's cathedral, the faithful clasp hands high in a unity they hope can one day be shared nationwide.

"We are too young to go back to the bushes. We are too young to remain disunited. It's time for us to come together and use this anniversary for a call, a call back for peace," says Bishop Pio.

But for teacher John Wiyol, a new war has already blighted new generations of camp kids.

"They get messed [up], because some of these children have seen their parents shot."

Image caption Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in December 2013. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
Image caption Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Image caption Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north.
Image caption The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Image caption After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Image caption Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however, this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Image caption Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight. This compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

Related Topics