Friday 29 July 2011

A town within a town

Inside their compound was a whole different world, isolated from the rest of Juba. I had already had plenty of experience of the hotels and NGOs in Juba – but the UNMIS (United Nations Mission in Sudan) compound was different. Despite having many of the same features its sheer size and separation from the city made it seem removed in a way that I had not experienced before.

Take one step outside of the Quality Hotel and you are straight into the heart of Hai Cinema, you can walk across the street to a local cafe where young men congregate to play pool and watch Western TV in the evenings. Take a few steps down the road and you are at the local shops where the store owner I see every day speaks only “small” English. Just outside are several boda-bodas, anytime of day or night.

And just around the corner is the chapatti stand where I buy my lunch each day. An omelette wrapped in chapatti and cut up, known as a “rolex” costs just two Sudanese pounds – a great value meal in ordinarily expensive Juba. Sitting under a makeshift cover that provides some welcome shade, I eat off plastic stools that are improvised as tables. In this setting I am greeted by school children and catch snippets of conversations about local life. One time I listened with interest to the Ugandan boys complaining about the difficulty of getting a Sudanese girlfriend, blaming it on their poverty.

While this area is surrounded by NGOs and is undoubtedly shaped by that presence there is no obvious sense of being set apart from the rest of Juba. White faces are rare. In contrast UNMIS was a town of its own; a cosmopolitan town, with Europeans, Americans, Africans and Asians. The gate to the UNMIS compound is at the end of a long dirt road, and although it is close to the airport there is a feeling that it stands alone. It took me several minutes to walk to the main road and find a boda-boda after I left. Most of the UN wouldn’t make that walk. They venture out only in their marked cars with giant, almost comical, antenna that are used to track their location.

The compound itself is vast, like a college campus. With row upon row of small prefab units that house the UNMIS staff in Spartan fashion, with shared bathroom facilities. There are stores, a restaurant and bar on the compound. It felt like a military base from which excursions could be made into South Sudan – which I suppose is not far from what it was.

Any visitors to Juba live in a parallel world. Even the NGO staff who have lived here for years exist in a different world from most of the local people. And in any case, within a city groups of people live very separate lives, based on social status, geography and other demographics. I have no reason to believe the UN don’t engage with the people here. For most, their jobs take them out of the compound all of the time, and probably to see more of the country than I will while I am here. However, I couldn’t help but be struck by the physicality of UNMIS’ isolation, the sense of enclosure, like a little expatriate bubble nestled on the edge of Juba.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

War crimes

Soldiers came in the night and slit throats, the cathedral had been looted and people were in hiding. These were the reports we heard from Martin, a man who had fled from Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan. Even as al-Bashir was greeted by polite applause in Juba, his government was carrying out what have been described as “especially egregious” atrocities just north of the border.

South Kordofan and the bitterly contested area of Abyei have significant cultural and historical ties to the South. Many in the region fought as part of the SPLA. Khartoum would like to see rebel elements extinguished and the people Arabized. The governor of the region is Ahmed Haroun, a war criminal wanted by the ICC (International Criminal Court) for crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.

Bombings, indiscriminate massacres and a campaign of terror have driven thousands into the mountains. Here they are isolated from any kind of help. The government in Khartoum refuses to recognise the displaced people and has hindered aid organisations from providing vital food and health care. Those with more resources may have succeeded in fleeing the area – Martin had made it to Juba and felt safe (he even said he was happy for his name to appear on the internet) – but he spoke of others still being hunted who it is not safe to identify.

Evidence of mass graves in the area has been found by the Satellite Sentinel Project – a project supported by George Clooney and Google that keeps a watchful eye on Sudan using satellites and corroborating evidence on the ground. Condemnations have been forthcoming from the international community; action, not so much.

Meanwhile in Juba, life after independence goes on. The new currency supposedly came out Monday, although I have yet to see any of it – the old pound is still in use at least for the next couple of months. A country code (+211) has come into effect. The UN has now admitted South Sudan as member number 193. Maps are even beginning to show the new border. The country is now well on its way to acquiring the trappings of an independent state. Building the nation’s economy and social structures may take a longer time, but contrary to the snide remarks about a new “failed state”, the future seems promising.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which led to the birth of South Sudan, did not ignore the regions left behind. Abyei was to hold a separate referendum to decide whether to be part of the North or South - when and if this will happen is now uncertain. South Kordofan and the Blue Nile were to hold “popular consultations”, but now even this vague promise seems unlikely to be fulfilled.

With the South separate and independent the North will hope that the international community will shift its focus. Those in Sudan still at odds with the ruling elite in Khartoum will hope this doesn’t happen. But even as satellites watch on we seem unable to prevent the unfolding tragedy.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Basketball match

“That’s Luol Deng” said Samuel, pointing at a man sitting a couple of feet in front of me. We were sitting on plastic chairs in a school yard watching a national basketball game. It was surreal to think that I might be within arm’s reach of an NBA star, with a $71m contract.

But it was certainly possible. He was wearing a Bulls cap and NBA socks, surely that was proof enough! And there is no doubt that Deng has been in the country. So here we were surrounded by a huge crowd scrambling to peer over us. There were no stands – this was literally the basket ball court of a local school. The game had been scheduled for Monday, but when we had arrived at the new basketball stadium we found it under construction. We came back again the next day; a crane was still standing in the middle of the small, outdoor court.

I had given up trying to see the game, South Sudan’s first, against Uganda. It was just by chance that I heard the cheering of the crowd, saw the road packed with cars and discovered the match. I tried to get a glimpse of the players through the wall of tall Sudanese standing on chairs. “Defence, defence!” they chanted as I walked around looking for a gap.

After a while I worked my way to the front where I could get a decent view. The skill of the players lit up the humble facilities. It was a privilege to be there to witness it, no ticket required. Despite the 75-72 loss the flag of South Sudan was being waved proudly on the court moments after the game ended.

It was the second major sporting event for South Sudan. The first had been a soccer match at the new stadium. The match was against Kenya and had also resulted in defeat, 3-1. However, the South Sudanese won’t let anything dampen their spirits. There was no anger, no fighting, certainly nothing like the scenes in Canada not so long ago.

Soccer and basketball are both popular sports in South Sudan. The people here are especially suited to the latter, being amongst the tallest ethnic groups in the world. In 2012 South Sudan will be competing for the first time in the Olympic Games in London. It may seem of little significance in a place where trash piles up in the streets, but what you quickly find when you travel is that people are much alike wherever you go, poor or rich. In Juba they are just as passionate in supporting their favourite team (which I’m pleased to say is often Arsenal), or kicking around a ball in the street as anywhere else in the world.

Maybe the balls are a little more scuffed and the facilities more basic. But somehow that doesn’t seem to matter very much.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Independence day

There was nowhere I'd rather have been than riding in the back of a truck bouncing along an undulating Juba road. It was a little after one in the morning on the 9th of July and we were piled onto a pick-up, soaked and ecstatic. We were soaked because we’d just forced our way through a street party and the crowd had blessed us by throwing water on us. We were ecstatic because South Sudan had just become the world’s newest nation.

The roads were quieter than they had been at midnight but the main roads and roundabouts were still alive with honking cars, boda-bodas whizzing by waving flags and crowds of celebrating citizens. Even as we drove down the rough roads away from the main action we passed groups of revellers who ran up to slap our hands and shouted with us “Oyeee! South Sudan, oyeee!”

There was little sleeping done that night. The sounds of joy went on until early morning. By the time they had subdued I was waking up to a cold shower. I’d obtained a guest pass to the celebrations, but to get good seat we were heading there early. It was a good move. We arrived at eight o’clock when a crowd had already formed, but the seating reserved for guests was still quite empty.

We climbed up to the top row where we had a good view of the road, the podium and behind the scenes. It was the perfect spot, and enjoyed a breeze that kept us much cooler than the other spectators. It was very welcome on such a hot day. Every so often we’d see stretchers carrying someone away who had collapsed from the heat – a number of them soldiers.

But despite the heat, the atmosphere was incredible. Throughout the morning cars would rush up the road, dispensing dignitaries and important figures that had come to see the Independence of South Sudan. Sometimes it would be a motorbike or police car with flashing lights and siren followed by a powerful looking vehicle. Other times it was a whole fleet of cars. The South Africans even brought two trucks full of armed soldiers.

It was after mid-day when Salva Kiir arrived (wearing his trademark black cowboy hat) and the formalities began. The National Anthem of Sudan was sung for the last time. There was complete jubilation as the flags rose - one to stand over the nation, representing freedom and independence, the other alongside that of the United States in the long row of national flags to represent South Sudan joining the international community as the 193rd member of the United Nations. With much greater gusto the new National Anthem was sung by the people.

It was astonishing to see the flag rising and the crowd in the place where just a few weeks earlier, when I had arrived, there stood a row of shops. I had driven past here a few times already. The first time I came the shops were being torn down, the next time they were completely gone, only rubble remained. Now the site was transformed. And this wasn’t the only change that had been pushed through in the run up to Independence.

For the first time a week earlier a plane landed at Juba in the dark. The guests coming in on Saturday were interviewed in the new Terminal building. And those I spoke to who had arrived earlier that week told me that they hadn’t had to fight for their baggage being thrown in through a window like I had less than a month earlier. They had collected it from tables in something that could almost be called an orderly manner.

The preparations had also included great efforts to ensure that people would know their new National Anthem. The night before, we had heard it repeatedly on SSTV while we waited for the news. School children had been practicing it and the words were being handed around or copied by people so that they would have them memorized for the day.

It was late afternoon before the ceremony was finally done. We’d had nothing to eat and were hot, hungry and tired. But despite that, no-one could have been in better spirits. Later that evening I took another drive around the town. There were less street parties than the night before, the celebrations mostly confined to the indoors. We pulled up and inspected a disco where young people were celebrating independence in the same way they do anywhere, by drinking, dancing and listening to music.

On the way home we passed by the lit up fountain. It was a beautiful thing, and a great symbol of a new Juba. While the luxury of the fountain might seem frivolous, even offensive, when the city still lacked a proper water system, it was good for Juba to have something attractive and wonderful. The city has a long way ahead, and it seemed to me that this fountain was a grand sign of the aspirations and hopes of a people whose dedication and resolve is unquestionable.

Even as the excitement and happiness still reverberates around Juba, the foreign media talk of the struggle ahead and the possibility of South Sudan become a “failed state”. An article in the LA Times implied the challenges had been set aside for the celebration (“ignored” even). But this wasn’t the case. Speakers talk of the work to be done and the challenges ahead. But rather than speak of them with concern and scepticism, as the foreign press does, they speak with the spirit of optimism and determination.

The people aren’t intimidated by the future, they know that they have achieved great things in winning their freedom, and they want nothing more than to push onwards to establish their place not just as a sovereign state, but as a great nation.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Lost boys

“I was lighter then,” David laughed. Light enough, fortunately, to be thrown away from the landmine he’d just stepped on. If he’d landed closer things might have been different. His story was extraordinary.

A child soldier at 14 the injuries he’d suffered from the landmine meant he ended up in Uganda. After finishing his secondary education he moved to the Netherlands – alone, knowing no Dutch – at age 17. Six years later he had achieved citizenship and proficiency in the language and had just moved to London.

It was hard to imagine David as a child soldier. He seemed mild mannered, friendly and gentle. He had no obvious sign of having been injured, not even a noticeable limp. We bonded over our shared support of Arsenal and the Chicago Bulls, talking about the player Loul Deng, another South Sudanese boy who had travelled to the West. If David hadn’t told me I never would have imagined he’d spent six months as a teenager fighting in the civil war.

Another guy I met, the same age, had just returned from America. He’d lived there for ten years, graduated from University and held a good job. He spoke with a distinctive accent and was almost as out of place in Juba as I was. However, he had chosen to return to South Sudan in order to make use of the education and skills he had acquired in the US and assist in the rebuilding of his country.

We spoke about the Sudanese Diaspora in the United States. I have heard about the large community in Omaha, Nebraska (and met one person who spoke of a relative in Lincoln, NE) but there are many more spread out across the country. One person I spoke to said he had been to school in North Dakota, the place came up again in another discussion, it was far from the first place I would have expected to find Sudanese refugees. “When there is a wedding or other event people will come from all across the nation,” he told me, when I asked about the unity of the diaspora population.

Many of those who ended up in the United States and Europe are young men, referred to sometimes as Lost Boys of Sudan. In 2001 a program was begun by the United States and the UN to resettle around 3800 boys across at least 38 cities in the United States. Many refugees of course remained in bordering countries – Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Those who made it to Europe and America, however, have often been lucky enough to have had a higher education.

“Many came back after the peace agreement,” I was told over a lunch reception. “They expected everything to be ready to go,” the man continued. Many had spent much of their lives in the developed world, they found that when they returned the pace of development was slow, and the government seemed unprepared to take advantage of their skills and education. Apparently many returned to the States after a short while. The different attitudes and expectations of the diaspora community and the South Sudanese in Juba may be a barrier to their return. Undoubtedly many will also find that they have fulfilling lives in their new homes and will have little desire to return.

But for those who do, there is a great deal that they can offer their country. The education, connections and cultural experience they possess could be one of the country’s most valuable assets. Of course, those who remain in the US or Europe also provide a valuable link for the country to the Western world. And whether they have their homes in North Dakota or Central Equatoria, I am sure that all will be united in spirit on the 9th of July to celebrate their Independence.

Monday 4 July 2011

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

More than two hundred years ago, on this day, the United States of America declared its Independence. In 5 days time South Sudan will celebrate Independence for the first time. The world has changed a great deal since 1776, but the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence ring as true today as they did then. That all men are created equal, endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The desires of the eighteenth century colonists were not all that different from those of modern day Sudanese. Like the colonists many did not initially look for a complete separation and independence. Rather they wanted to address the grievances they had with their current situation. For the South Sudanese one of these concerns was religious and cultural freedom.

The Arab controlled government of Khartoum looked to replace the native culture and languages with Arabic, as well as enforce Sharia law across the country. So there was a definite struggle for liberty – freedom to retain culture and religion.

Another concern was equality. While Khartoum enjoyed many of the advantages of a developed city the displaced that lived in slums on its periphery lived in abject poverty. In the South the lack of development and infrastructure are all too evident. Despite the majority of oil wealth coming from this part of the country very little of that money went into improving the lives of the people who live here.

The pursuit of happiness is undoubtedly tied in to the lack of freedoms and equality for many Sudanese. As independence approaches there is a definite sense of hope in the air. People look to the opportunities that exist, and leaders in the church and government call for peace and unity to prevail, that the important work of development might not be obstructed.

Even the right to life has been an important part of the struggle for independence. When famines hit the land and when the displaced were forced into camps the government both neglected their most basic needs and hindered the work of international aid organisations.

While the details of South Sudanese independence and American independence differ greatly, there are at the heart the same fundamental values. This is reflected in South Sudan’s new National Anthem, which could easily be a patriotic American hymn:

Oh God,
We Praise and glorify you,
For your grace on South Sudan,
Land of great abundance,
Uphold us in peace and harmony

Oh Motherland,
We rise raising flag with the guiding star,
And sing songs of freedom with joy,
For Justice, Liberty and Prosperity,
Shall forevermore reign

Oh Great Patriots,
Let us stand up in silence and respect,
Saluting our Martyrs whose blood,
Cemented our National foundation,
We vow to protect our Nation

Oh God Bless South Sudan!

Today Americans remember their history and celebrate the values of equality, liberty, life, opportunity, democracy and everything else that is central to them. I hope that as they do so they think of South Sudan, embarking on its journey to create a country according to those same values. And also that they think of the many places in the world where the struggle still goes on to see those values realised.