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For Some, Independence Day Is About Commiseration, Not Celebration

South Sudan declared independence on July 9, four years ago. Since then, over 2.25 million people have been displaced by ongoing conflict. VICE News spoke to some of them.

by Sally Hayden
Jul 9 2015, 5:50pm

Photo by UNHCR

"The first time I saw our flag going up I cried, cried, cried so much," Natalina recalled of the day four years ago, when her country South Sudan gained independence.

"I remember for the first year people were really very happy, because it's the first time we're going to have a country… We had a safe life and anything [we wanted]. Two years [it lasted], and after that I think everything went upside down."

Natalina, 47, left her home in South Sudan's capital city Juba in January 2014. "The gunfire started in the night on December 15, 2013 — for the first time our children could hear the guns and see them… We spent five days under our beds hiding."

Eventually, Natalina said, her family managed to reach the local church, where they stayed until they could flee to Kampala, Uganda.

Today South Sudan marks its fourth year of independence. The world's newest nation has also been designated the world's most failed state. Conflict broke out in late 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his vice president Riek Machar of planning a coup, and the cycle of retaliatory killings that followed divided the poverty-stricken country, beginning a cycle of horror and widespread abuse that is showing no sign of abating. 

Related: In Photos: Not Much to Celebrate on the Fourth Anniversary of South Sudan's Founding

More than 2.25 million people are now displaced as a result of the ongoing war. Ethiopia alone hosts 275,000 South Sudanese refugees, while 155,000 have arrived in Uganda since December 2013.

"This year we've had an average of around 3,000 refugees every month," Charles Yaxley of the UN refugee agency UNHCR told VICE News from Kampala. "We're expecting it to continue at current rates, and potentially to get even worse."

"Uganda is currently hosting more refugees than at any other time in its history," Yaxley continued. "It's holding the ninth largest amount of refugees in the world and the third largest in East Africa." 

Of the South Sudanese who have arrived in Uganda — a country with a relatively generous refugee policy — around 86 percent are woman and children, according to Yaxley. "So this is really a children's emergency," he added.

He continued: "I think certainly most of them are fleeing really traumatic situations. There are reports of widespread human rights abuses by both sides and the conflict shows no sign of slowing, or certainly not stopping. So most of them are thankful to reach safety here. Many countries are shutting their borders or pushing away boats, and that's not the case here."

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Natalina's children cry whenever South Sudan is mentioned, but she still says she'd like to go home at some stage. "It is really my country," she told VICE News. Last week Natalina heard reports that a single mother had been killed while in her own home. "South Sudan isn't safe. Especially if you have children."

Right now, she's focusing instead on her offspring. "Children can take time to forget what happened in the past," she said. "If we can get a settlement to take them out of Uganda to get a good education, to get a good life, I think that can help them forget what happened in the past. It might take 10 years, it might take more, we are asking for that help."

Adau, 65, comes from Bor, South Sudan, and is pictured in the Dzaipi Reception Center in Uganda. She lives with another nine family members (eight children and one grandchild) in a communal shelter in Dzaipi. Her husband dropped them at the border but stayed there himself as he was too sick to make the journey. Photo by J. Ose/UNHCR

Nora, another refugee based in Uganda, laughed when asked what she carried with her when she fled. "Nothing," she said. "I came from South Sudan running."

The 40-year-old was born in Maridi in southern South Sudan, and vividly remembers celebrating independence in 2011. "It was very nice — after more than 50 years we became free. Just our happiness [did not last] a long time, just a short time," she said. "Now we have become refugees and we wish our country would come back."

Many of Nora's family members were killed before she left South Sudan. "Now we are alone, three daughters. I can't go back home because my home right now is not settled, there's no security. And staying here in Uganda is hard but there's nothing I can do."

Related: Already Facing Famine, South Sudan Expels UN Humanitarian Coordinator

Taban, a 49-year-old from Juba, left what was then-Sudan shortly before independence, in 2009. He did not return when nationhood was declared, though he says he celebrated from afar. South Sudan "is the Garden of Eden," Taban proclaimed grandly. "We have a lot of resources and we are missing out."

He still wouldn't consider going back though: "The situation is so scary."

Taban called for the international community to avoid becoming fatigued when contemplating the conflict. "We would like the interest to remain on the South Sudanese," he said. "We don't have employment, we find it a challenge because if you are not employed you don't have enough nutrients… It is a challenge to educate my children."

"Our prayer is that there will be peace and that we can go back and enjoy the resources that there is," he added.

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Akshaya Kumar is the South Sudan Policy Analyst for the Enough Project and has been analyzing the country since long before independence was declared. "What's notable in the past few months is that there's been a real escalation in the brutality and the nature of the killing and the targeting, with both sides really adopting a scorched earth kind of attitude and the rebels really putting a premium on taking hold of the government's lifeline — which is continuing oil flows — because any oil that goes out of the country means that the government gets at least a little bit of income."

"And then on the government side there's a really brutal counter-insurgency campaign which involves targeting lots of soldiers but also civilians, and looting cattle and just really making it impossible for people to live in the area that the rebel communities and their supporters live."

The African Union's Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan is currently deciding what to do about a recent report on the conflict. Whether they make it public or act on any of its recommendations, Kumar said there should still be more being done in tandem with these efforts. "We argue in the human rights community that there are a lot of things that could be happening in parallel while the [African Union] decides whether to move forward with this."

South Sudanese refugees dance in the Adjumani district of Northern Uganda. Photo by J.Ose/UNHCR

Projections have suggested that the war in South Sudan could cost $158 billion over 20 years after the local region and the international communities losses are tallied up.

Investment flowed into the country following its declaration of independence, but that money has since largely disappeared. "Unlike some countries where corruption in some ways gets reinvested back by businesses who are seeking to advance empire, in South Sudan that hasn't happened," Kumar told VICE News. 

"South Sudan itself, its people are left with almost nothing," she charged, adding that tracing the missing money is important both from a combating impunity perspective, but also to cease the funding still fueling the warring parties.

Natalina said she remembered noticing the tangible impact of the country's finances and prospects improving after 2011.

"There was really investment in South Sudan for two or three years, it developed very fast," she said, "and after that everything was broken." If the money was to return Natalina said that as a mother she'd want "a lot of hospitals and also education, this is very important for children." 

Nora agreed. "If we get that money again I wish my country would develop and use that money in the right place."

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Kumar said that — while a peace agreement seems elusive and sustainable peace lies even further away — continuing to document the ongoing abuses and conserve evidence should remain a key priority, "so when a court does come into play there's really an evidentiary record that can be used to jumpstart those cases."

Still, she said that she doesn't think the term "failed state" is completely accurate.

"I don't think that the situation is hopeless. I think that the South Sudanese in particular... really do believe in the power of peace negotiations," she said. "They believe that a negotiated settlement is possible, they believe that a fresh start is possible."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd