Sunday marked South Sudan’s sixth year of independence, but celebrations were cancelled for the second year running due to the civil war and famine that are causing the fastest growing refugee crisis globally. “We are not celebrating… because our situation does not require us to celebrate at a time when there are people in need of these funds,” said government spokesman Michael Makuei.
According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people have been killed in the deadly civil war while an estimated 1.97 million have been internally displaced and a further 1.9 million fleeing as refugees to surrounding nations. Half of these have been taken in by Uganda, which is now the only country still open to refugees, whose numbers have doubled since a renewal of fighting in 2016.
One great concern to aid organizations is the murder, abuse, displacement, malnutrition, and military recruitment of children. Currently, 70% of South Sudanese children are not receiving an education, with more than a third of schools having experienced an attack by armed groups. According to locals, children as young as 7 are forced to become soldiers in order to replenish the lost ranks. More than 17,000 children are currently soldiers in South Sudan, for one of the many armed groups, with recruitment ongoing. Save the Children has described the situation as ‘dire’, while UNICEF is calling it “a catastrophe for children.” “Millions of children in South Sudan are suffering unthinkable hardships and setbacks in their education, nutrition, health and their rights,” said Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF’s Representative in South Sudan, on Saturday.
On top of security threats, famine and risk of disease have been exacerbated by the conflict and are major problems for the South Sudanese population. 6 Million South Sudanese people do not have enough food with fighting forcing many farmers to desert their farms and disrupting harvesting and sowing. The distribution of food is also severely affected by the violence and with inflation at 800%, food prices are extremely high.
“Life is very horrible in South Sudan,” said Mayol Garang, a teacher at a government school in Juba. “The prices of basic commodities have gone up and there is no money to purchase them. We are not even getting salaries. There is no money at all.”
The destruction of health, water, and sanitation systems in South Sudan pose very serious risks of sickness and disease. The current cholera outbreak is the longest running and most widely spread disease ever experienced by South Sudan, with UN Humanitarian Coordination Office estimating 11,214 cases over the last year. With rainy season on its way, there is much concern about the further spread of this deadly disease.
The conflict in South Sudan broke out in Dec 2013, only 2 years after its independence, when President Salva Kiir dismissed (the now former) Vice President Dr Reik Machar, accusing Machar of conspiring to overthrow him in a coup. The fighting began between government forces and armed groups loyal to Kiir and rebel group SPLM-IO, commanded by Machar. However, as the conflict continued other militant groups have become involved. The two major groups signed a peace resolution agreement in 2015; however, since the conflict recommenced in 2016 there has been little talk of peace.
With the nation in a state of emergency, issues of famine and disease growing worse, children suffering in the thousands, and no end to the conflict in sight, the South Sudanese people can only hope that next year’s independence day will bring celebrations and peace.
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