|A Question Remains: AVSI and the Crisis in South Sudan|
Torit, South Sudan – As South Sudan found itself on the brink of civil war once again, AVSI was forced to evacuate its foreign staff. Finally after a month of negotiations and a cease fire on January 23rd, peace is making a cautious return. AVSI staff, holding out hope for a swift return to normalcy, has now made its way back to Eastern Equatoria, the South Sudanese state where AVSI carries out most of its projects. Eastern Equatoria is one of the 10 states now facing a refugee crisis, as many Southern Sudanese from more violent regions continue to actively seek sanctuary wherever it can be found.
The Beginning of the Crisis
On the eve of December 14th a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, linked to the deposed vice president Riek Machar, caused a political crisis when it instigated a coup from within the presidential guard. Though the coup attempt was never acknowledged by Machar, fighting soon spread beyond the capital, Juba, to other regions of the country, especially Jonglei and the Unity States, largely along ethnic lines.
President Salva Kiir belongs to Dinkas, while Machar to Nuers. The two groups have lived together peacefully for years, and ethnic violence is not inevitable. The peak of the crisis was reached on December 19th when a UN compound was attacked in Akogo, Jonglei State, resulting in the death of two Indian UNMISS peacekeepers. So far, an estimated 700,000 people have been displaced by the current crisis in South Sudan with some 62,000 people seeking shelter in UN bases across the country. Thousands have been killed.
AVSI staff, present in three different locations in South Sudan: Juba (Central Equatoria), Torit and Isohe (Eastern Equatoria), were evacuated on December 19th. Some came through Uganda and others from Juba thanks to an airlift orchestrated by the Crisis Unit of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The interview that follows was conducted with Anna Sambo, AVSI Country Representative in South Sudan. Upon her arrival in Italy in December, she was one of the first to speak with the international press. She described in great detail the eerie tension that permeated Juba leading up to the crisis.
Anna, what was the most difficult moment?
“For sure it was the day before the evacuation. The fighting had stopped but in Juba there were rumors about soldiers coming down the mountains to take the city. People feared an ethnic cleansing and many sought protection within the United Nation base. We feared the airport would close and that the phone lines would be cut”.
Did you expect anything like this? Were there any rumors about ethnic cleansing?
“There were rumors that soldiers were looking for other tribes members. There are the Nuers, sedentary farmers, loyal to the former vice president Machar and the Dinkas, agro pastoralists, that support the current president Salva Kiir. The truth is that the coexistence of the two ethnic groups has always been quiet. AVSI employees belong to both tribes and they have never gone beyond the simple joke about each other origins”.
What are your thoughts about the future of South Sudan?
“The country is already devastated and is recovering from a long civil war. Most of its people live in high levels of poverty. There are still many weapons around. The fear is always that the fighting is about oil. Everyone’s concern is that the fighting has a clear objective and the situation could easily spin out of control”.
The Aftermath: The Crisis Provokes a Question
Currently the situation is still tense in Juba and in some states like Jonglei, Lakes and the oil state of Unity. Skirmishes have continued even during the formal cease fire. Fortunately, Eastern Equatoria, where AVSI is implementing its main activities, remains calm and AVSI’s staff is now making their way back into the country to continue their work. The relative peace of the south eastern most state has made it a safe haven for internally displaced South Sudanese trying to escape the fighting of other regions.
Anna Sambo recently returned South Sudan herself. When she arrived in the city of Torit, the capital of Eastern Equatoria state, she met with the South Sudanese staff working for AVSI there. Everyone that spoke at the meeting remains concerned about the movement of refugees and worries for their families and for their own well being. They are concerned by the fact that everyone seems to want to flee the country and the violence. The cost of goods has skyrocketed because the violence has made everything extremely difficult to import from neighboring Uganda and Kenya. Everyone is preoccupied and everyone is questioning whether or not it is worth staying.
Many ask her why they should remain and it is clear that this is the question everyone must now face, not only those who have lived their entire lives in South Sudan, but also the foreign staff that have come to give their lives as they work there. There are many reasons to remain and also to leave: work, money, the need for a permanent home, the desire for a peaceful place to raise your family, to take care of your wife and children, the simple need to live somewhere away from violence.
During the meeting, the question looms large, why should anyone want to stay here? In the next weeks and months, as this question begins to find an answer, one thing is certain, AVSI’s work will start again from where it was last interrupted. Everyone hopes that the situation will stabilize, that progress will continue and that AVSI projects, like those in Eastern Equatoria, will become clear signs that the future always holds a promise.