By Rene Lambert,
My colleague, Jane and I, flew in a small eight-seater plane from Juba to Boma Town in Jonglei, South Sudan. We were on our way to see how Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis might assist thousands recently displaced by conflict. In recent weeks, Boma, a small verdant mountain town of around 7,000 had swelled with the arrival of roughly 2,400 people displaced by inter-communal violence between two ethnic groups the Lou Nuer and the Murle. The U.N. estimates that more than 60,000 Murle fled their homes when around 8,000 armed Lou Nuer youth raided towns in search of stolen cattle and kidnapped children.
Jonglei is one of South Sudan’s most underdeveloped states. It lacks most basic services like electricity, running water, paved roads, schools and healthcare facilities. Many believe these factors are catalysts for conflict. With limited opportunities, youth often resort to violence to amass resources.
As we flew over Jonglei, the vastness of South Sudan took my breath away. The topography below us was like nothing I’d ever seen. At times it looked like we were flying over the moon—wide swaths of cratered and dusty ground that jarringly shifted to expanses of black that could have been burnt villages or rock. I saw no water sources. There were no signs of people, only vast uninhabited territories between Juba and Boma.
As we approached the town, I couldn’t even see the airstrip where we would land. We descended on a cleared grassy patch and the plane literally rolled up to the heart of the town next to an array of market stalls. Boma is an oasis of commerce in Jonglei. It’s near the Ethiopian border and its main dirt road leads to the city of Kapoeta, where Kenyan traders bring in goods for sale.
When the violence broke out in Pibor, people ran for safety in all directions. Those who arrived in Boma followed a dirt path, and when possible, a river, knowing that they’d be able to get food and water along the way. Some walked for seven days straight without stopping to rest. Many said that they felt that their attackers were close behind them.
Our first stop was the office of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC). In any emergency response, working through the local authorities is critical. An SSRRC official, Alston Longony, met us. A tall lanky figure with kind eyes and a reassuring voice, Alston couldn’t have been more than, 28. Educated in Kenya as a refugee during the war, he’d returned to his hometown of Boma last May to help build his nation.
Alston’s dedication to his people was palpable. In a few short days he’d inspired a legion of volunteers to help register the displaced. He’d worked with other local authorities to canvas the community and convince families to take strangers into their homes. In all my years responding to emergencies in South Sudan I’ve never seen anything like it. Usually you arrive at the site of an emergency and find people sleeping under trees, near market stalls, or wherever they might find safety. In Boma, however, all the displaced were sleeping behind the safety of the grass-thatched fences, either in people’s mud tukuls or in the open air compounds surrounded by other families. The displaced might not have a roof over their heads but at least they are all safe behind compound walls.
Everywhere we went Alston commanded respect and admiration. His efficiency was remarkable. Soon after our meeting he’d arranged for three translators to accompany us as we visited homes. They were absolutely vital to our work. Each story we heard was heartbreaking. Jane interviewed one woman who was sitting on a thatched woven sleeping mat when we arrived and had a baby in her lap. When the attacks began her infant was strapped to her back. She took off running, desperate to get her baby to safety. She has no idea where her other six children may be, or if they survived. Her story is not unique.
The women we visited were either sitting listlessly or off in the forest foraging for leaves. They have been reduced to hunting and gathering. We asked the women if they planned to go back to their village. They all said that they had no plans to return and were looking for a space to build a home in Boma. Most of them await their husbands and children. They feel they can’t go anywhere until they’re located.
Unfortunately this cycle is likely to continue. Violence is what people know. Until people are provided with options, young men will continue to resort to violence. This whole experience really brought home for me the importance of development work. We need to help provide youth with education and employment opportunities. We need to work with them so that they discover there is another way.
Meeting Alston and seeing what he’s been able to accomplish illustrates what young South Sudanese can achieve when given the opportunity. He was able to access an education and is using that critical tool to build up his people. All South Sudanese youth deserve the same opportunity. Education and access to jobs will show them the alternative. By investing in the future of South Sudan we can help ensure that conflict in Jonglei will become a faded memory.
*Renee Lambert is the CRS South Sudan deputy head of programming.