The creaking Russian helicopter lands in an open field in remote Wai, a town in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. The sky is perfectly clear; the temperature reaches 45 degrees. Women wave the South Sudanese flag to welcome the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, who arrives with Unesco peace envoy and American actor Forest Whitaker. His peace and development initiative, founded in 2012, works across the region.
They’ve come with a small group from the capital Juba to see how the UN is managing around 25,000 women, men and children who arrived in late December, fleeing a civil war that has entered its second year and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
It’s a remarkable operation, establishing basic but workable services. Local leaders press Amos for more help – especially for digging bore-holes for water – and complain that the central government isn’t listening to their demands. I’m observing as a journalist, as Amos is leaving her position in March and touring nations with the most desperate needs.
Her visit was my introduction to South Sudan since moving here recently with my partner, who works for an international aid organisation in advocacy and campaigns.
Neither of us had been to East Africa before we arrived, but we knew something of the country through friends who worked with the South Sudanese community in Sydney. The country’s political strife felt like a distant issue. I saw the occasional news about communal violence, pleas for Canberra to play a larger role in resolving the crisis and events such as the one organised by my friend, photographer Conor Ashleigh, which helped teach young South Sudanese and Afghan youth how to use a camera (aside from taking selfies).
At first, the idea of relocating to a war zone elicited curious and confused stares from friends and family, but both of us have spent time in challenging nations. We’d both discussed for a long time our desire for a change of scene, away from Australia.
It wasn’t such a leap, then, to leave the comforts of home. We wanted to be more than just temporary bystanders, and had the chance to experience the inner workings of the world’s newest nation. It didn’t take long for my girlfriend to convince me that her job in South Sudan would give me the opportunity to deepen my experience as a journalist, while avoiding the usual fly-in fly-out habits.
Juba, where we live, has poor infrastructure, few paved roads and an excess of dust, but there are also bars on the Nile and a growing use of social media. We live in a simple apartment in a compound in the middle of the city. There’s a strict nightly curfew. Security isn’t excessive – this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan – but streetlights are almost non-existent and it’s unwise to walk alone when the sun goes down.
It’s safe to walk the streets during the day, though, and I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve been asked whether I know relatives living in Melbourne or Sydney’s big South Sudanese populations. Over 19,000 South Sudanese live in Australia – many refugees, who arrived over the last decade. People I meet are happy that their family members are safe and thriving away from South Sudan.
A government worker last week quizzed me on the Socceroos’ career prospects. He knew far more about them than me. Like many places I visit, apart from areas in the Middle East, Australia is seen as a benign force in the world.
Many of us know Africa as the place Bob Geldof used to visit, a continent defined by aid. That image was false, but it remains the case that without humanitarian aid, South Sudan – created with huge fanfare in 2011 – would likely collapse in many areas.
There are other descriptions: journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in February this year that after its creation, the country became the “world’s emotional petting zoo”. Alex De Waal, writing in African Affairs, argued that “South Sudan obtained independence in July 2011 as a kleptocracy”. The Guardian’s Daniel Howden wrote that the country was born from a “seductive story that could be well told by handsome movie stars” like George Clooney.
I’ll be exploring other questions during my time here, too. What role did Washington’s desperation for an African success story play in creating the current mess? Why is the African Union dragging its feet on human rights? Wikileaks cables confirm that US administrations were deeply involved in funding all sides of the brutal war that led to the 2011 independence; US Christian Evangelicals were key to building support for the soon-to-be independent Christian nation back at home.
Being in South Sudan will also force me to face the complex relationships that exist in a developing nation: between journalists and NGOs, and Western aid donors and their recipients. How much money stays in the pockets of foreign contractors and how much reaches the locals?
During my visit to Wai, the military governor of the rebel-held area said: “We are at war but at the end of the day we are one nation.” It was a hopeful plea, despite all sides committing horrendous abuses, at a time when South Sudan needs unity, reconciliation and accountability. It also leads to the most crucial question of all: what hope is there for a durable peace agreement between the warring parties, to avoid the ongoing displacement of millions of people and save billions of dollars?