Perspectives from South Sudan: From war to fragile peace

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Debbie DeVoe

Sudanese in the south are beginning to pick up the pieces of their lives. In January 2005, the signing of the north-south peace agreement officially ended Sudan's 21-year civil war. Since that time, close to a quarter of the 4 million people who fled their homes have returned to their former South Sudan communities. Peace in the south is fragile, however. To hold onto it, Sudanese face the challenges of extensive reconstruction, ensuring implementation of the north-south peace agreement and ending the related violence in Darfur.

Community members work together to assess problems and plan improvements for a main road in South Sudan.

Having lived in South Sudan in times of both war and peace, Tracy O'Heir - a Catholic Relief Services program manager in the southern state of Eastern Equatoria - is now helping southern Sudanese rebuild their lives. The 33-year-old Chicagoan first came to South Sudan in June 2002 as a volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service. She returned to Sudan in May 2006 - this time with CRS - after earning a master's degree in international development from Fordham University in New York.

"When I was asked to go to South Sudan as a volunteer, I was a little hesitant," Tracy admits. "But I loved being with the people there and ended up staying two years."

The Sudanese have welcomed Tracy warmly, inviting her into their homes and lives. Throughout her first stay, she felt safe for the most part. But Tracy knew violence could strike unexpectedly and have devastating consequences for her neighbors.

"During the war, Lord's Resistance Army rebels from Uganda were in the area. They would attack villages near the town we lived in, and we'd be restricted to our compounds or the town for days at a time," she remembers. "For me it was an inconvenience, but I always knew I had a way out. The people who lived there didn't."

New Hope

The two-year-old peace agreement is bringing new hope and opportunity to South Sudan.

Farmers sow vegetable seeds during a CRS-supported gardening training in South Sudan.

"Now that there is peace, there's a general feeling of relief - a freedom from fear of violence. Areas that were under the control of the north or south during the war have opened up, letting families that didn't see each other for decades be reunited," Tracy explains.

A number of difficulties greet returnees, however. Generators and solar panels are the only source of electricity, and very few schools, clinics or even banks exist. The area has no paved roads, and the few dirt roads available become impassable for half the year during the rainy season. Phone service is also extremely limited.

"People are frustrated that services still aren't available, but it's very difficult to rebuild when you're practically starting from scratch," Tracy notes. "Say you're responsible for paying teachers at school. Since there are no banks, you have to carry around a suitcase of money." The war also prevented most people from going to school, limiting the number of skilled workers available for hire in the area.

Paving the Way to a Peaceful Future

Helping to address these problems, Tracy oversees CRS' development programs in Eastern Equatoria. Together with international and church partners, CRS is working to improve water access, health care, education, agriculture and job development for more than 63,000 community members and returnees. To strengthen community ties, CRS also weaves a common thread of peacebuilding throughout these initiatives.

"Recently, villages in the area were having some conflicts. Our peacebuilding manager met with the communities to discuss general risks and dangers in the area, and they all said that the road they lived on was very dangerous," Tracy says. "In the end, they decided to take on a road improvement program, coming together to increase their safety and market access."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer for East Africa. Debbie is based in Nairobi, Kenya.