JUBA: South Sudan marks its third birthday this week in a state of civil war, carved up along ethnic lines, locked in a cycle of atrocities and on the brink of famine.
Despite vast oil reserves and billions in foreign aid, the world’s youngest nation has been classed as a massive failure – most recently by the Fund For Peace which put South Sudan in the top spot on its Fragile States Index, ahead of Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Banners on the streets of Juba proclaim “One People, One Nation,” but with war raging across the country and nearly a fifth of the population forced from their homes, any talk of national unity rings hollow and there will be little to celebrate.
Juba has been a divided city since mid-December, when presidential guards loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with troops supporting ousted Vice President Riek Machar – the event that triggered the now 7-month-old civil war.
The initial fighting saw hundreds of members of the Nuer tribe, to which Machar belongs, massacred by troops and civilians from the Dinka group, the single largest tribe and that of President Kiir.
Thousands of others fled to Juba’s United Nations base, where they remain packed in squalid conditions, ringed by fences and guarded by U.N. peacekeepers. In other towns, thousands of Dinka civilians have been displaced by a revenge campaign of murder, rape, looting and destruction by Nuer fighters.
“We are here because the Dinka are killing us,” said Gatmai Nhial Riek, a 26-year-old Nuer student who has been sheltering with 10 family members in the U.N. base in Juba for the past six months.
For some, life in the capital of old enemy Sudan – from which South Sudan won independence in 2011 – is more attractive.
“I would rather live in Khartoum than South Sudan. I don’t want to stay in South Sudan, the security is not good for us Nuer,” said another camp resident, 27-year-old Abraham Tut Mayak Kai.
“I feel South Sudanese but I’m not treated as a citizen of this country. At the moment, we’re not a country.”
South Sudan was born out of a long and brutal independence struggle with Muslim Khartoum, and finally raised its flag of independence in 2011 to much international fanfare and widespread optimism – having taken with it the main oil fields and buoyed by international aid.
Zachariah Diing Akol, a researcher with South Sudan’s SUDD Institute, an independent think tank, said the picture today could not be more different than three years ago.
“2011 was the termination of many years of struggle by the South Sudanese for a sense of respect, for a dignified life to live in freedom. People were very excited, people spent the whole night in the streets, it was very powerful,” he recalled.
“The sense of being victorious, the sense of living peacefully, without fear in your own country: That has changed drastically. Many lives have been lost.”
Relief agencies say famine will break out within weeks unless there is massive funding for food aid for an estimated 4 million people – or nearly half the population – now dependent on handouts.
The International Red Cross has been forced to charter cargo planes to airdrop relief supplies and keep isolated groups of refugees alive.
While millions battle hunger, thousands and possibly tens of thousands have already died – cut down by machine-gun fire while hiding in swamps, massacred in homes, churches and even hospitals, or lynched by their neighbors because of their ethnicity.
“The conflict has at times seen horrific levels of violence,” said Raphael Gorgeu, South Sudan chief for Medecins Sans Frontieres. “Patients have been shot in their beds, and lifesaving medical facilities have been burned.”
Despite warnings of war crimes charges, threats of sanctions and flying visits by diplomatic heavyweights Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, both Kiir and Machar appear immune to pressure and determined to fight it out.
Peace talks have been in progress since the start of the year in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, but successive cease-fire deals have failed to stick, and the talks have occasionally bordered on the farcical.
At one point the two sides halted the talks because they were unhappy with the venue, Addis Ababa’s opulent Sheraton hotel.
“The two sides are still not interested, at least it seems to me, in a settlement very soon,” said Akol of the SUDD Institute. “There is still a belief that this war is winnable.”