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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Two Independence Days
July 6, 2011
By Susan Purdin
On July 9, South Sudan will celebrate its independence after years of war, strife and, since 2006, a tenuous peace.
As an American, I’ve enjoyed many Fourth of July celebrations, from my hometown near Fresno, California to New York City, when I worked at the headquarters of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and towns and cities in-between. But this year, along with my IRC colleagues here in Juba, I am looking forward to the Ninth of July. For on that day, South Sudan will celebrate its independence after years of war, strife and, since 2006, a tenuous peace that is under near-constant threat.
There has been an uptake in activity around here in the capital of the future country as Independence Day approaches. In some ways, this echoes the events of five months ago, when the referendum was held to determine whether the south should stay united with the north or split. The outcome of the referendum – nearly 99% voted for secession – was really never in doubt, but the fact that it would come off peacefully was seen as a miracle after years of war. The world turned its attention to Juba for a few days and the referendum was observed by prominent Americans like former President Jimmy Carter, Senator John Kerry and actor/director George Clooney.
As independence nears, the world has again turned its attention to South Sudan, but for terrible reasons: bloody violence in contested areas along and near the border. In mid-May, Sudanese armed forces sent from the north took control of Abyei, a territory claimed by both North and South. International arbitration was required to draw its boundaries and a much-postponed referendum was to have determined whether it seceded with the South. When the northern forces arrived, one hundred thousand people fled to the south.
Around June 5, fighting also erupted in South Kordofan between government troops and fighters aligned with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The result has been tragic, as reports emerge of attacks on civilians and people fleeing for their lives. Many of the displaced are ethnic Nuba, and some have fled into the Nuba Mountains -- but they have no access to medical assistance, food and clean water. International aid agencies have been prevented by local authorities from entering most of the region and supply lines have been cut.
Recently the U.N. Security Council agreed to dispatch Ethiopian peacekeepers to Abyei and the African Union’s Thabo Mbeki and other international diplomats seek to resolve the violence in South Kordofan. A return to peace, if real, would be welcome, but in the meantime thousands will have been injured or killed. On Friday North Sudan’s President Al-Bashir commanded his troops, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) not to cease its military offences. Peace in this state appears a long way off.
Conflicts in these areas are not the only threats to the viability of the new nation. Even less well understood is that the rest of the country suffers from bouts of sporadic violence, such as tribal conflicts, cattle rustling, and, in Western Equatoria, the marauding Lord’s Resistance Army. The south is also afflicted by widespread poverty, illiteracy, and poor medical care. The IRC runs programs to improve health care and education, reinforce human rights and reintegrate those who fled the fighting in the past. We devise ways to reduce violence against women and help communities develop and govern themselves.
I was trained as a nurse and in my visits to International Rescue Committee offices in rural areas, I have seen evidence of severe medical challenges. Malnutrition is common. Children die from diseases like diarrhea, malaria, and pneumonia that are survivable in industrialized countries. The know-how exists to prevent almost all deaths related to pregnancy but the new country of South Sudan will have the highest maternal mortality in the world. It is estimated that, at the current rate of midwife training here, it will take 1,000 years to have enough qualified midwives to attend all births. On the positive side, our program training village women to identify and treat common diseases at home before they kill is really making a difference. Cholera is common with the seasonal flooding, but in the past couple of years we have mobilized to keep it under control in the rainy seasons. Our efforts to help are important and, in many cases, life-saving but more is needed.
I first visited southern Sudan in 1996 and, in the years since, I have watched the southern Sudanese cope with war, poverty and other threats. I can’t help but look forward to South Sudan’s Independence Day here. But I balance my feelings with the knowledge that the brand new government’s “to do” list is dauntingly long and a great deal of help is needed. So here’s a plea to my fellow Americans: Savor your memories of the Fourth, but don’t forget July Ninth!
Susan Purdin is the International Rescue Committee’s country director in Sudan, based in Juba.