Jillian Foerster served her Brethren Volunteer Service term in South Sudan in 2011-2013, only months after it gained independence from Sudan and became its own country. Jillian has since completed her masters degree in international relations with a focus on Africa and is now working on U.S.- Africa policy and economic development in the region. She shares from her extensive personal experience and research to help us better understand the struggles facing this young country.
In November 2011, I boarded a plane headed towards East Africa to serve as a BVSer in South Sudan. I was headed to work with a small, church-led peace building organization called RECONCILE, based in a town called Yei, located in the southern part of the country, near Uganda.
After decades of civil war with Sudan, South Sudan was struggling to overcome generations of widespread poverty and underdevelopment along with the deep trauma brought on by a legacy of violent conflict. Nonetheless, after two years of working in Yei and forming new friendships in my community, I learned that South Sudanese men and women are fiercely resilient and were excited to start rebuilding their new nation for themselves and their children.
I left my BVS placement in December 2013. A week and a half after my departure, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, announced a coup in the capital of Juba by the former Vice President, Riek Machar. This signaled the launch of a new civil war.
While the situation is complex, there are essentially three different crises occurring in South Sudan: a security crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of leadership.
Security Crisis: Hundreds of thousands have already died in conflict or as a result of displacement since 2013. South Sudan has now unfortunately joined an unhappy club along with Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria, all of which have conflicts that have generated more than 1 million refugees. Counting the internally displaced (the legal designation given to people who still remain inside the country, whereas refugees are those that are outside of their home country), approximately one-third of South Sudan’s population have been forced to flee their homes due to violence. Ethnicity plays a big role in the perpetration of violence, pitting neighbors against each other and carving deeper scars into an already fractured country.
While these numbers appear daunting, I used to rest assured that at least the people I knew remained safe in Yei, a town with a reputation of remaining peaceful even as much of the rest of the country is plunged into violence. However, there are now reports that indiscriminate killings have started taking place in the town. As of last week, the UN has warned that 100,000 people are now trapped in Yei, surrounded by armed actors.
Economic crisis: Even during my BVS term, a time of relative stability, , most of the population struggled to pay school fees for their children or get access to basic health care. Indeed, South Sudan has long been one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world with only one paved highway outside of the capital city. Despite this low baseline, the security situation and other economic factors have contributed to plunging the country even further into a catastrophe. A bar of soap that cost me 5 South Sudanese Pounds in 2013 now costs 200 pounds and food is scarce in the once-thriving local market in Yei.
Earlier this summer, I struggled to listen to my colleague describe how one of our neighbors in Yei slowly lost weight – He and his young children are slowly starving as they struggle to make ends meet.
Crisis of leadership: Despite the signing of a peace deal and international efforts to forge a Government of National Unity, South Sudan’s leaders have continued to perpetuate conflict as their citizens suffer. Furthermore, South Sudan’s leaders are reportedly stealing billions of dollars from state coffers and directing customs officials to prevent fleeing populations from leaving the country. It’s hard to even know the severity of the crisis because the government frequently blocks humanitarian actors from accessing crisis areas, preventing them from gathering information and providing much-needed assistance.
U.S. policy makers and other global leaders are shocked at the behavior of South Sudanese leaders and often express their disdain and condemnation in hearings and official statements. However, the crisis in South Sudan isn’t simply a matter of a few bad apples or “greedy leaders” misbehaving but a complex conflict with a complex history, taking place in a chaotic environment. The only thing that is obvious is that there is no simple solution to bringing about a lasting peace.
I find it hard to remain optimistic considering the deeps wounds inflicted by the recent and ongoing violence, a heart breaking admission given the hope that I witnessed after independence in 2011.
However, there remain a few good stories. The Church of the Brethren has long partnered with churches in South Sudan who represent important community leaders and peacemakers at local and national levels. Churches have even stepped up to provide services, protection and to help South Sudanese families in need. I recently saw a Facebook post from a friend that noted that over 50,000 people were being harbored in churches in Yei. Overall, as one of my colleagues tells me, “the church has continued to be a prophetic voice in the midst of this conflict, speaking out against the atrocities and abuse of power… at great personal danger too.”
Engaging Christian leaders and other members of civil society will be key as South Sudan embarks on the difficult work of ending the conflict and repairing the wounds of war.
There’s a lot more to know about the recent events in South Sudan. For more information, there are a number of sources for better understanding the context and possible international responses:
- Article from the UN on the situation in Yei, October 10, 2016: http://www.un.org/apps/news/asp?NewsID=55252#.V_v4PtzLc4B
- International Crisis Group report on the conflict in South Sudan: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/south-sudan/south-sudan-risky-political-impasse
- Article from Foreign Policy Magazine, July 10, 2016: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/10/renewed-violence-in-south-sudan-threatens-fragile-peace-agreement/
- Testimony from experts in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, September 10, 2016: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/south-sudan-us-options-as-south-sudan-leaders-fail-the-peace-092016p
- Recent investigative report from the Sentry on looting and destruction by South Sudan’s political elites: https://thesentry.org/reports/south-sudan-2/
- Report on July 2016 violence from Civilians in Conflict: http://civiliansinconflict.org/uploads/files/pressers/CIVIC_-_Juba_Violence_Report_-pdf