On February 7, 2011, the results of the South Sudan's independence referendum were publicized, declaring it the world's newest country, with nearly 99 percent of the people voting to secede. I arrived in Malualkon, just south of the border of Darfur, shortly thereafter. As the plane descended on the dirt tarmac in Juba and my suitcase emerged through a jagged hole in a rickety wood wall, my first realization was how much less developed South Sudan was compared to the rest of Africa. My second was the emphatic quiet, the striking lack of celebration. A small tattered lone flag, barely visible if one were at all distracted, humbly welcomed me.
Intrigued by the lack of outward jubilation, I interviewed whomever I could in the community to discover why. One uniform answer surprisingly prevailed. As a community health worker, James Guotmaduok, told me, "There was no loud celebration after. We do not want to gloat to the North because we want to move forward. All we want is peace after so many years of fighting. We won independence, but now it's time to work and build our new country." The hope and determination emanating from his words seemingly assured that South Sudan was in good hands - the hands of the people who were all so very committed to it.
Fast forward three years later, and the country is in the opposite state from the quiet bliss in which it found itself post-referendum. Given that 75 percent of the oil between the two countries lie in the south but all the pipelines and necessary infrastructure to export the oil is in the north, conflicts expectedly broke out between the North and the South over oil rights. Small tensions between rival tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, also have been ongoing but relatively contained. But this most recent conflict - which has essentially turned into a civil war - threatens to destroy all that has been built and all that South Sudan could be.
The conflict started in December 2013 as a power dispute between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Beginning as a political tug-of-war within the current ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the conflict has since grown into an ethnic spar, pitting President Kiir's Dinka people - the largest of South Sudan's tribes - against Mr. Machar's Nuers. It has escalated into explosive in-fighting leaving tens of thousands dead and forcing over 1.2 million to leave their homes, with over 80,000 of them sheltered in United Nations bases. This is the highest death toll for the region, not including Darfur, since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between Sudan and South Sudan in 2005. The crisis has also resulted in numerous grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, targeted attacks against civilians, arbitrary arrests and detention, and violent strikes on healthcare facilities.
While a second attempt at a cease-fire was theoretically signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this month, fighting between rebels and government troops reportedly resumed just hours later. This latest backslide is in the worsening context of possible genocide as well as a rapidly emerging famine.
As South Sudan's plight worsens, inevitably calls for action and funding are thrust upon the international community. But while aid is crucial, especially to the 3.7 million people who are currently experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity, transformation for the world's newest country has to come from within. In the same way that South Sudan won its independence because the people all allied together and voted nearly unanimously to secede is the same - and likely only - way that cease-fire and reconciliation can be attained. South Sudan has to only look at its southern neighbor, Rwanda, to know that active dialogue, internal peace-building, and forgiveness had to come from within before the country could truly move on and re-build. While external assistance is necessary, it's up to the people in the end to recommit to their dream of a strong and unified South Sudan.
I tried to find James recently but was unable to. I do not know if he was one of the tens of thousands killed or one of the millions displaced. I remain haunted by his words that he voted for secession "in the hopes of having a better life for [his] children." The people need to decide if they want to make his words true - or if South Sudan will continue to spiral into a fractured, hopeless state.