South Sudan slides from exuberance to catastrophe


People arrive at Minkammen, South Sudan, on January 9, 2014. Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village, a once tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

People arrive at Minkammen, South Sudan, on January 9, 2014. Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village, a once tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )




By Nichole Sobecki


The sun was just peering over the horizon when the boats began to arrive. Long, wooden structures built for fishing, they were now being used to transport hundreds of civilians away from the front lines under the cover of darkness.

I’d arrived with my colleague Peter Martell to meet the latest to escape the fighting in Bor, the largest town still in rebel hands. I was shooting stills and video, while Peter spoke with people crowding the shore.

Men and women waded off the boats carrying children and the meagre belongings they’d been able to bring. Many had spent days hiding in the swamps near the Nile River outside Bor. People spoke of their exhaustion, of friends and relatives killed in the violence they’d fled, and of the bad dreams that woke them in the night.

(AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

Displaced people unload the few belongings they were able to bring with them to Minkammen. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

Displaced people unload the few belongings they were able to bring with them to Minkammen. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

(AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

The world’s youngest country, South Sudan was born less than three years ago in a spirit of exuberance. After two long wars, in which two and a half million people are thought to have died since 1960, July 9, 2011 marked a new beginning. Having spent large parts of that spring covering Libya’s bloody decent into civil war, I felt privileged to be able to witness what felt like a closing chapter on years of violence. A clock tower in the middle of the capital Juba, counting down the minutes until independence, read “Free at Last.” Former military rivals Salva Kiir and Riek Machar were sworn in as president and vice president of the Republic in a ceremony that dragged on in the brutal heat. The flag of Sudan was lowered, and the new South Sudan flag made its way up the pole amid roars from the crowd.

Yet in mid-December that uncomfortable alliance fractured, bringing South Sudan to the brink of civil war. Fighting has escalated into a conflict between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders. Thousands are feared to have been killed, with new estimates by the International Crisis Group placing the death toll closer to 10,000.

People unload food aid and other items such as soap, plastic mats and buckets from a recent International Committee of the Red Cross delivery in Minkammen. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

People unload food aid and other items such as soap, plastic mats and buckets from a recent International Committee of the Red Cross delivery in Minkammen. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

The once tiny fishing village of Minkammen has swelled to a sprawling camp. Over 84,000 have fled the Bor region to these havens across the Nile River. With little shelter available, every tree in sight has been converted into an ad hoc home. Families crowd together under the limited shade during the heat of the day, metal aid cans acting as pillows and stools. With little clean water available yet, women gathered jerrycans from the Nile.

A young teacher we spoke with brought us to meet his newborn daughter, who had been born out in the open the day his family arrived in the camp. No medical facilities had been set up yet. He planned to name his daughter after this land they had fled to. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) now runs a clinic in Minkammen, where people arrive daily with bullet wounds, though the most common ailments stem from the harsh living conditions faced by these new arrivals.

A member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) administers polio vaccines to children in Minkammen. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

A member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) administers polio vaccines to children in Minkammen. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

A mother sits with her infant in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Minkammen, 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Bor, on January 10, 2014. Some 80,000 displaced people from South Sudan's volatile Bor region have fled to safety in sprawling,

A mother sits with her infant in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Minkammen, 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Bor, on January 10, 2014. Some 80,000 displaced people from South Sudan's volatile Bor region have fled to safety in sprawling, dusty camps in Awerial region across the Nile River. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

Seeing people who have lost their homes, who have seen their neighbours and families killed, is difficult and humbling. I'm not a doctor, or an aid worker, and when faced with the scale of South Sudan's unraveling, a camera can feel like a hopelessly inadequate tool. Ultimately, though, I think these stories need to be told. As a journalist it's our duty to show people the cost of conflict in human terms, to people they've never heard of and will never meet. Public opinion is created through awareness, and collectively you try to add your small piece to that, and hope for change.

Aid agencies are struggling to provide shelter, food, clean water and basic sanitation facilities as the numbers of displaced continue to grow. Trucks arrive from Juba carrying grain and basic supplies to be distributed, and water purification centers are organized. Getting supplies to this remote outpost is a challenge though, and many needs are not being met.

“Dreaming of peace but back in war”


Though the largest concentration of people displaced by the conflict, the camps in Minkammen represent only a fraction of the more than 400,000 displaced by the conflict. Peter and I spoke with UN aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer on a congested road in one of the UN peacekeeping bases in Juba where over 60,000 people are now packed. Glancing around, Lanzer spoke of the situation as “an unfolding human catastrophe.” Laundry flutters from the compound’s barbed wire, and every available inch of space holds a tea stand, a gathering of men, or a sleeping child.

Click here to open video in a separate window.

Even before this latest crisis South Sudan had some of the worst social and economic indicators in the world: an infant mortality rate of more than 10 percent, and the world’s highest maternal death rate. It’s one of the world’s poorest nations — many would not survive without humanitarian assistance. About a billion dollars in development aid flows into the country each year.

What is not lacking is weapons, or men willing to fight. The older generation has known little but war, and the youth face mass joblessness in a country awash with guns. In Minkammen a soldier called Jacob sat on a dingy mattress neatly folding his uniform as we spoke. He pledged to return to fight the rebels, but said that “this has to be the last war.”

Simon Thon, a thin, young father of three, described the instability facing his country as a cycle: "We thought we were dreaming of peace but now we are back in war.”

An injured man who was displaced by violence in Bor region, is pictured in Minkammen, 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Bor, on January 8, 2014. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )

An injured man who was displaced by violence in Bor region, is pictured in Minkammen, 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Bor, on January 8, 2014. (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki )