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Rumbek’s distress

Richard O’Dwyer SJ, Director of MAJIS (Multi-educational and Agricultural Jesuit Institute of South Sudan), sent IJN a sad report in October:

“I am attaching some recent reflections on South Sudan. Things are not good here at all. I know the picture I paint is bleak but the situation has become pretty awful. Rumbek at present is more or less cut off by road from the rest of South Sudan due to flooding because of heavy seasonal rains and the complete failure of central and local government to carry out any maintenance whatsoever on regional and national roads in 2013 and 2014. Most roads in and around Rumbek have had the clay top surface washed away by heavy rain, leaving huge potholes and craters to the extent that on some roads there are more holes than roadway. As one would expect such roads take a huge toll on the vehicles which use them.

As a result of the appalling condition of the roads many essential food items are either not available or have doubled in price in the many towns outside Juba. In Rumbek, at this time there is no diesel available. Petrol, used mainly, by motorcycle taxis, is now selling at between 30 and 40 South Sudanese Pounds per litre (7 to 10 US Dollars per litre). MAJIS is applying to Misean Cara for emergency food aid as people here are beginning to starve. We are also fundraising to buy a tractor, plough and harrow in order to help local people to plough land in the spring of 2015. My fear is the UN/World Food Programme will do too little, too little just as in the Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There is a desperate need for action now because in a relatively short time, people will begin to die from hunger.

The security situation in Rumbek has deteriorated during 2014 for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Governor of Lakes State who was not elected but appointed by the President of South Sudan in early 2013 to replace the elected Governor, whom President Kiir sacked, has failed to stop Dinka on Dinka inter-clan violence. This violence has a long history going back more than 30 years. There has always been disputes among the different Dinka clans who traditionally are cattle-keeping pastoralists over cattle, water and grazing rights. In the past Dinka warriors attacked each other with spears and bows and arrows as a result very few people died. In addition, the warriors never harmed women and children. However, in the last 40 years, with the proliferation of small arms such the ubiquitous AK47 or Kalashnikov which is so light it can be used by a child, there has been a huge increase in the number of people killed and seriously wounded has in inter clan violence.

Alongside the gun violence, traditional values have broken down along with cultural rituals to bring about reconciliation. The governor is a former bush commander who is unable read and write, and speaks no English. The measures he has taken measures to quell inter-clan violence that have proved to be ineffective. One of the first things he did was to ban the sale of beer and liquor in Rumbek except in two or three expensive hotels mainly frequented by high-ranking local government officials and expatriates, as it was claimed that it was one of the causes of insecurity. The only result has been that people now drink illegally-brewed local alcohol.

The other significant reason that inter-clan violence is on the increase is because there has an utter failure by politicians to address past violence and killings which took place during the time of civil war. No one has ever been arrested and brought to trial for the killings which took place. During that war around 2 million people perished. In the violence that has taken place since Christmas of 2013 up to now and which again has resulted in the death of thousands of people in the fighting between government and rebels, no one has yet been held accountable. This failure has produced a culture of impunity which has had a fiercely corrosive effect on the rule of law. Groups and individuals have come to feel the better armed they are, the less likely they are to be caught. As a result people have taken the law into their own hands to seek revenge for past wrongs and murders, resulting in more and more deaths.

Around 300 killings in Rumbek and the surrounding area have taken place in 2014. The Governor has failed to develop any kind of strategy in conjunction with traditional local leaders and the Police Service to bring a halt to the murders and in fact when some of the Governor’s family member were shot and killed his response was to dispense guns and arm his own family and clan members. This action has, in turn, has led to more violence, insecurity and killings. Furthermore, all the violence and insecurity has brought on a huge food shortage. I would estimate that less than 50% of the normal cultivation needed for people to feed themselves and their families has been undertaken place during the 2014 growing season. There was a serious and continuous violence and raiding taking place when locals were attempting to sow cereals such as sorghum and millet in the spring of 2014. People in the village of Akol Jal where the MAJIS project is based are saying they have no food.

To make matters worse a lot of cattle-keeping young men who would normally keep their cattle clear of cultivated areas have taken refuge in the town of Rumbek away from the traditional cattle camps. The cattle are being minded by young boys who have allowed the cattle to wander into cultivated gardens and fields because of poor grazing close to the town and this has resulted in the destruction of an already inadequate and depleted harvest. This in turn may lead to further unrest and insecurity when aggrieved farmers seek compensation from cattle-keepers and/or the government for the destruction of their crops.The government will plead inability to pay.

I regret having to paint such a bleak picture of life here in Rumbek but sad to say, there is an ongoing massive failure in leadership at all levels of government and in all areas including security and rule of law, education, health and agricultural planning and development. This failure to govern the country with any kind of meaningful strategy is further undermined by corruption and theft of public money on a scale that is staggering. This looting of the national coffers has been carried out by key people in high office whose only concern seems to be self-enrichment regardless of the dire consequences for their fellow countrymen and women. In a sentence South Sudan is in an utter and complete mess that is bordering on the brink of anarchy and utter chaos. I think the international community in general and the UN in particular have turned a blind eye to this situation. The ongoing conflict between the government and rebels and the totally ineffective peace talks continuing in Addis Ababa are further examples of a failure to face the dire reality of what is happening and being allowed to continue to happen without any call for those in government at local and national level to be accountable.”

In Christo, Richard