Friday, July 08, 2011

Birth of a nation

Let's celebrate with South Sudan and nurture a new country

As South Sudan finally gains independence, we should not dwell on the difficulties it faces but look at how we can help it grow

By Martin Bell
July 8, 2011
We rarely hear good news stories from Africa. This week in particular the pictures coming out of the Horn of Africa are sadly all too familiar – millions of children and their families facing starvation as crops continue to fail under the ongoing drought. And once again, the aid agencies are appealing on a massive scale for money to help prevent a monumental famine.

But in neighbouring Sudan there is an emerging story of hope, as on Saturday, South Sudan will gain independence from the north and the world's 193rd country will be born. This is a moment that the people of southern Sudan have longed for, and follows decades of civil war between the north and south.

The price for this independence has been high, with more than 2 million deaths, 4 million people forced to flee their homes – countless childhoods lost and families destroyed. But a ceasefire negotiated in 2005 led to a referendum in January this year in which the people of south Sudan voted overwhelmingly for separation. While there are still significant disputes over some of the border areas, which has lead to further fighting and civilian suffering, the secession of the Republic of South Sudan is still an incredible achievement – and one that many of us would not dared to have hoped for.

Now the day has almost arrived, and heads of state and other dignitaries are descending upon the fledgling capital Juba to mark this precious moment. Thus far, this is a good news story, and we should celebrate with the people of South Sudan.

However, the challenges that lie ahead are enormous. I visited South Sudan with Unicef earlier this year, and it would be difficult to imagine a country more in need of intensive care. As hundreds of thousands of displaced people flood across the border, wanting to get back to the south before separation, there is nowhere for them to go and no services to support them. Families set up makeshift homes under a tree, with only the branches for shelter.

International agencies like Unicef are working hard to sink boreholes, train teachers, build hospitals, improve immunisation rates, but they are starting from next to nothing: South Sudan has one of the highest infant-mortality rates and lowest education indicators in the world. There is only one children's hospital in the country, one child in 10 dies before their first birthday, and fewer than 1% of girls finish their primary education.

To make matters so much worse, the insidious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has been pushed north out of Uganda, regularly carries out raids on South Sudan villages, killing adults and kidnapping children who are then forced to join the marauders or become their slaves, often being made to murder their own family or friends so that escape and return to their villages becomes impossible. The brave South Sudanese have formed themselves into groups of "arrow boys" to defend their villages using homemade bows and arrows, but they have limited effect against the guns and horses of the LRA.

You could, if you chose to, throw up your hands in despair at the gargantuan task that lies ahead in building this new country, starting from such desperate beginnings. But the people of South Sudan are not despairing; they are rejoicing, so I say let's rejoice with them. Let's take on the challenge of nurturing a new nation, finding the money to help build hospitals, schools, develop water systems, grow drought resistant crops, and the equally daunting prospect of finding a peaceful solution in the border areas, so that South Sudan has a future.

Because today, this is a good news story. Let's make it stay that way.


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