South Sudan: Where Independence Day is not quite 4 July
Today is 4 July – Independence Day in the USA. Fireworks, parades and rodeos at least, I think that’s what happens. I’m British and may be relying on too many transatlantic clichés.
But what I do know is that for many, inside the States and outside, it’s the Independence Day.
Still, there are many newer nations with more recent independence days and their futures are far more uncertain. The paths to independence for Kosovo and East Timor were long and traumatic.
And for South Sudan, the world’s newest country, independence three years ago has not led immediately to happiness – far from it.
Independence is rarely straightforward
As the United States found two centures ago, building an independent nation is rarely straightforward. The USA was born amid rebellion, with the Founding Fathers denounced by the British for their ‘extravagant and inadmissible claim of independency’.
And while we Brits may have had a pleasingly pompous way with words, these days there are few on either side of the Atlantic who would agree that a country’s desire for self-determination is either extravant or inadmissible.
An auspicious beginning
South Sudan’s independence seemed, at first, so much more auspicious than America’s. On 9 July 2011, Salva Kiir signed the constitution and took his oath of office in front of jubilant crowds.
The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon were among those looking on. There was a real, if fragile, hope that the first generation to grow up in South Sudan would be allowed to thrive, after decades of war that had claimed around 1.5 million lives.
Three years later, South Sudan has been engulfed by violence.
Around 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes as the power struggle between President Kiir and his former Vice President, Riek Machar, has moved from politics to ethnic violence.
Children and families, schools and hospitals have come under attack. Hundreds of thousands of children are suffering now, their futures at risk.
Hope still lingers
You might expect that in the face of such hardship all the optimism of three years ago would have evaporated. But I have spoken to children and families in different parts of South Sudan and they still believe in their young country’s future.
Today I am thinking of Tayar* and his family, whom I met in Awerial. They live in the largest camp for displaced people in South Sudan, where around 100,000 people fled for safety.
They told me about their seven-day flight on foot, without food, clean water or any certainty of reaching safety, after their house was burnt and looted.
“Peace and development will come”
But Tayar still believes. “When South Sudan became independent I was so happy,” he told me. “Even with the crisis it’s better than before. Before independence we had no hope. Now I believe these differences will be resolved. Peace and development will come.”
If those in power will just share Tayar’s belief, South Sudan could start to become the nation it should be.
Both parties to the conflict must reinforce the fragile ceasefire signed on 9 May. And they must allow aid agencies to reach the millions of people in need of help.
Our teams are doing whatever it takes to reach the children who need us with nutritious foods, psychosocial support and treatment for cholera in remote areas.
In five days time, South Sudan’s independence is far more likely to be marked with gunfire than fireworks. We must all work towards a fourth anniversary that actually can be a celebration.
*Name has been changed to protect identity