As seems to be the norm here in South Sudan there were a lot of different predictions going around about what the 9th of July, South Sudan’s first birthday would bring. There were rumours that the government were going to announce five days of public holiday as part of a nine day celebration. There were rumours of movements of rebel militia groups to the north of Bentiu. There were fears that over indulgence might lead to rowdy behaviour among some sections of the large military presence in the town.
As a security precaution a decision was made that our international team would spend the day in the compound with no movement outside and only maintain contact with the clinic via radio. I was very much against this decision but I am the doctor not the security responsible and those that make these decisions have much more experience of working in similar contexts than I. In any case I wasn’t feeling the best and needed the rest so the Sunday and Monday were the first two days since I arrived that I did not go to the clinic.
Thankfully the day passed off peacefully, reportedly there was a parade in the town with music and military display. There were no reports of any trouble. Sensibly the government decided on just two days public holiday. On Tuesday it was back to work as normal in the TFC (Therapeutic Feeding Centre) so it seemed a little bit to me like independence celebrations did not happen at all. A brief look online at news stories related to South Sudan’s celebrations revealed plenty of negative headlines such as ‘Juba’s bitter anniversary’ from the Guardian or ‘Viewpoint: South Sudan has not lived up to the hype’ on the BBC.
I feel this is overly harsh on the ordinary people of South Sudan, yes while there are many challenges but at least now the people can hope for a brighter country. Also it’s very quick to write off South Sudan as a ‘failed state’ after just one year. I wonder what the media were writing about Ireland in 1922 when shortly after independence the country was in the grip of a civil war?
There are huge problems in South Sudan. In Jamam and Yida in massive refugee camps MSF and others struggle to provide water, food, shelter and healthcare in dire circumstances to almost 200,000 refugees from Sudan. Throughout the country access to education and basic healthcare is limited. Inflation is high and the economy, which is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues, faces huge challenges. Corruption is also reportedly a big problem and even the president Salva Kiir has admitted that $4bn may have been misappropriated since 2007. Inter-tribal violence mainly arising from cattle disputes is also a huge problem in parts of the country.
However many of the people I meet here are happy and almost all are proud of their new country and proud to call themselves South Sudanese. To help get a better perspective than the headlines a few days after the anniversary I try to get a snapshot from a few people in the clinic about what independence means to them:
‘Because we get our right to be a new nation….also because for us to work hard to defend and develop ourselves as a new nation’ John, nurse
‘I am happy because we have a new nation’ Freeda, mother
‘We have our new government without obstacles in South Sudan, but we are still weak because we don’t have anything, we need some help as we are like a newborn baby we need help to raise us up’ Janes, father
‘It’s fine for me, you help us to treat our children, as our government is still yet weak, until our independence becomes strong’ Nyalada, mother
‘We are happy , we were even brought here by the international Organisation for Migration, here in our new-born independent South Sudan. We hope to get help from other countries because we are independent country’ Nyamen, mother and recent returnee from Sudan
‘If the government becomes strong our children will be ok, it is now new’ Elizabeth, mother
‘We are happy because we are in our new country, even though it is weak we thank those who help us, we will continue until we become strong’ Nyaboth, mother
‘Independence is good for freedom and fairness and also people will help develop a good society, because before we didn’t have any good services or prosperity’ James, nurse
It is clear that these people are happy and proud of their new nation whilst accepting the problems and the need for outside help. So let us wish them well on the first birthday of their new nation and hope for a brighter future.