After decades of war, the transition to peace in the world’s newest country was expected to be rocky. But in some areas, it’s been downright apocalyptic. In Malakal, a “recovering” city along the northern border where the main roads (a bog of mud and refuse) are literally sliding into the upper Nile, thousands have arrived in recent months fleeing militia attacks on their villages. While the city itself has been relatively quiet since succession, it wasn’t long ago – March, to be precise – that aid agencies were forced to bunker down behind their impressively reinforced walls, hoping an errant RPG (rocket propelled grenade) wouldn’t land in their front courtyard. At the UNICEF guest house, there’s even a bomb shelter thirty feet underground. No wonder many organizations with international staff prefer to keep a safe distance, ensconcing themselves in the capital, Juba.
Since the North-South split, irreconcilable differences have continued to play out at a cost of hundreds of lives. It’s not surprising: there is a never ending supply of small arms and teenage boys, and few viable alternatives to violence to fill their days. While in Malakal last week on War Child work, I met dozens of women, children, grandparents and unaccompanied youth who had arrived from neighbouring villages with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing – and sometimes not even that. They’d left their homes and livestock behind, which were subsequently looted and burned. When fighting erupted a few weeks ago, Nakimo – a woman in her thirties living on the margins of a fetid soccer field – sought refuge with her six children in the tall reeds that line the Nile’s shores. She hid there for three days while her husband searched for a canoe that might take them to safety. Now they live, like thousands of Malakal’s residents, in a temporary shelter of grass mats strung up with twine and ready to collapse.
Life is difficult in most countries recovering from the effects of chronic war, but in the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan areas of South Sudan it has become a recurring nightmare. Clashes between the North and South are escalating, and recent satellite images show more than 3,000 northern troops amassing at the border along with a plentiful supply of tanks, weapons and attack helicopters. With China’s ongoing willingness to ship arms and other military equipment to Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum (still thumbing his nose at the ICC’s indictment for war crimes), this is hardly surprising. But the regional significance of a renewed and intensified conflict should not be overlooked. Refugees are fleeing into Ethiopia while Darfur remains unsolved, which also has implications for neighbouring Chad. Conflict in Sudan has always spilled over into proxy wars that have included enemies’ enemies and other convenient friends. And the North has the resources, thanks to lucrative oil deals, to drag this out. Even without South Sudan’s oil deals, the Khartoum government is proving to be adept at squeezing their nemesis by blocking trade routes to Port Sudan and imposing high tariffs. The local cost of food and other essential supplies is outrageous, in part because of NGO-driven pricing (while there may not be more NGOs per capita in South Sudan than anywhere else in the world, it certainly feels this way) but mostly because there is little domestic production. Stealing cows and scorching farmer’s fields merely serves to up the ante.
So where does this leave the “peace process”? At best it’s stalled, and at worst it’s about to implode. With global attention split between events in North Africa and the Middle East, and a dreadful famine surging in the Horn, the troubles in Sudan are unlikely to generate much, if any, public or diplomatic response. The southern Sudanese sense this as well. “Maybe it will be better”, sighs Nakimo, “When I come to die. Life has always been too difficult here.” Along the Blue Nile, the ink on succession is not yet dry, but disillusionment is already setting in.