South Sudan: The long road of nation building

by Tommy Simmons, Italy Director of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF)

Opinion Editorial: edited version published in Embassy
March 13, 2014

The city Bor, capital of the state of Jongley, just 180 km North of Juba, is a ghost town. Even one month after it changed hands for the third time in a month, the smell of death hovers in the air and its streets and markets remain empty. The common graves, where people have been buried by the hundreds, are still partly open, as new victims are found in the countryside and the supply of 2,000 body bags requested by the authorities gradually runs out.

Bor's centre is littered with burnt stalls and looted shops. The 120-bed hospital is reduced to 20 beds aligned in an open ward and patients are cared for by military medical personnel. The civilian hospital was looted during one of the killing sprees and many patients unable to leave their beds were killed where they were found. One of Bor’s eight doctors was killed in the fighting.

The ghost town of Bor is almost exclusively peopled by men, many of whom are in uniform. Women and children have escaped and have found refuge across the nearby Nile, in swamps and the higher grounds secure from the river's periodical flooding. The people of Bor, once a vibrant and multi-ethnic trading centre, are now mainly from one single ethnic group, though Bor has a satellite city, a fortified UN base where some 9,000 men, women and children have found refuge from their neighbours and marauding soldiers and will remain there, prisoners of escalating animosities, for the foreseeable future.

The UN can protect them from the forces of man, but not from nature: a recent measles epidemic took away 154 of the camp's children before a successful round of immunizations put an end to it.

Walking the empty streets of Bor's residential outskirts - where open, abandoned, looted houses with lopsided doors hanging from broken hinges add to the heavy atmosphere - the ground and ditches are littered with the scattered belongings of escaping civilians: clothes, utensils, random personal objects cover mile after mile of dust, telling the story of countless people suddenly picking up bare essentials from their homes, of the urgency of escape, of grabbing children's hands and running for safety and then dropping burdens becoming unbearable in the face of fear or getting caught by the onslaught of shooting men in uniform and most likely perishing there and then with those few belongings left to be ransacked and looted in the stark sun by the victors.

Bor and Jongley are not new to such carnage. Even the recent history of the town and its State is a lengthy and recurrent list of clashes, of massive death, displacement, abductions of children, cattle raids. The current "political" conflict which has engulfed all but a few of the country's States is just the new face of old conflicts which South Sudan's independence in July 2011 has not been able to placate. An equal degree of reciprocal fear permeates all communities and the memory and fear of terrible past wrongs feeds the violence, revenge attacks and retribution and yet more fear. Civilians can only hope to flee, just as so many have fled time and time again in South Sudan for the past 50 years of total war and occasional relative peace.

In South Sudan a combination of distances, lack of infrastructure and insecurity make it virtually impossible to reach most corners of the country and the greater numbers of those directly touched by the conflict but it is clear that the great regions North of Juba have been torn asunder by conflicting armies and civilians and that a seemingly permanent wedge has split apart the peoples of this immense and tragic country of some 12 million people, of whom almost one million have currently been forced to flee their homes.

"Ethnic clashes" and raids in South Sudan - as in so many other countries - are caused by the need to control pasture and water sources. The local economy is traditional and supports survival in a society by-passed by social and economic development. Fifty years of a society paralyzed by conflict have frozen education and destroyed the basis of infrastructure. Generations of Southern Sudanese from all parts of the country were born and have lived in total uncertainty, surviving through conflict, expedients and massive "emergency interventions".

The international community has two pockets through which it supports countries like South Sudan: an "emergency pocket" to tackle the consequences of extraordinary disasters and a "development pocket" to support structural progress. When there is a chronic emergency - like the one South Sudan is trying to emerge from and like the ones afflicting Somalia, Darfour, parts of Congo and Syria - the "emergency pocket" cannot deal with the consequences of destroyed schools, aging health workers, and migration. And so the wounds of the immediate crisis are dealt with, at great cost, with food aid, medical camps, additional security, while these countries gradually, day by day, decay, lose skills and the hope of a quick recovery after the acute phase of the disease afflicting them entirely disappears.

Chronic emergencies require a third pocket of support aimed at preventing the implosion of societies and the onset of opportunistic infections.

The degeneration of failed or failing nations can only be stopped through the focussed allocation of very long term funding to ensure that essential human rights to education, basic health care, safety and water are fulfilled.

Today, less than two per cent of South Sudan's population has completed primary school. South Sudan is thought to have the worst literacy rate in the world. 70 per cent of children between the ages of six and 17 have never set foot inside a classroom. Most teachers are themselves barely primary school leavers. Some 84 per cent of women over the age of 15 cannot read or write. In Juba’s hotels the cook is from Tanzania, the waitress from Kenya and the woman looking after your room from Uganda. After 50 years of war even basic skills have never been acquired.

For South Sudan to develop into an independent country supported by people with the right skills, we need to patiently invest in its children and youth and then contribute to their training as health workers, secretaries, barmen, environmentalists, accountants.

The solution to today's crisis in Bor, Bentiu, Malakal, lies 30 years down the line and we need to be prepared for patient social development, down on the ground where it counts most. Otherwise we must not be surprised or excessively outraged if the smell of death soon returns to market towns like Bor or if others, with different intentions, patiently develop their own scenarios which may well be very contrary to our aspirations and ideals.


Tommy Simmons is Italy Director of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF). A native of Montreal, Tommy has worked in international development for over 30 years and recently visited South Sudan where he contributed to the creation of the National Health Training Institute in 1998 and, more recently, to the founding of the “Maridi Girl’s Secondary Boarding School for the Sciences”.