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No more excuses in South Sudan

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Families displaced by conflict in South Sudan in Akobo describe their experience fleeing violence. Photo by Peter Bauza/Oxfam

It’s time to stop the complacency, or risk complicity in on-going conflict

Abby Maxman is the president of Oxfam America.

When I first visited what is now South Sudan in 1999 it was mired in years of war, displacement, and death. Yet the people I met were filled with great hope for a better future. This past week I was able to return to have my first up-close visit to Oxfam’s work in the field since taking the helm of Oxfam America in June. My trip took me to the capital city of Juba and to Akobo, in the former Jonglei State, near the Ethiopian border.

The men, women, and children I met during my visit have deepened my commitment to helping bring an end to this crisis. Our collective humanity deserves nothing less.

In Akobo, I heard stories of month-long treks of women and children to reach relative safety there. Two women had small babies who were born on the arduous journey. I met a woman I’ll call Faith, a 25-year-old mother of four struggling to simply feed her children each day, with little time to spare to ponder an end to the conflict that forced her to flee. Instead, Faith is preoccupied by the grinding work of daily survival.

Oxfam has been active in South Sudan for more than 30 years – bringing historical and practical knowledge and experience to longstanding connections with local people. I was heartened by the team’s strong on-the-ground relationships and the combination of activities that alleviate suffering, save lives, and build on the already inspiring levels of resilience shown by local communities. Oxfam provides support for those who have had to flee their homes; trains local groups to help people fish, do carpentry, bake and sell bread; and establishes education programs to teach basic literacy. Several single mothers and a local preacher told me why they were devoted to coming to the literacy classes for two hours a day, five days a week – so they can read the prescriptions that a doctor provides to their children, and widen their access to information overall. I was amazed by these practical and empowering goals.

Dreams of peace

The people I met during my time in South Sudan last week made me think back to my visit 18 years ago. At the time, the seeds had been planted in fertile soil for recovery and development. All that was missing were the enabling conditions of committed leadership, political will, good governance, and diplomacy and rule of law, to help the country flourish. But 18 years later, these promising green shoots have failed to bear fruit. The South Sudan I visited last week was a country unchanged in many ways – astronomical maternal mortality rates, abysmal literacy rates, especially for women, and inadequate infrastructure – and also very different. It was a country whose citizens had tasted the sweet promise of peace, only to have it replaced with the bitterness of war.

Abby Maxman (right) speaks with women involved in an Oxfam-supported project to make and sell bread in local markets in Akobo. Photo: Peter Bauza/Oxfam

As I saw firsthand, this conflict is not just killing people. It’s killing their futures. As a young woman I’ll call Nancy told me a few days ago, the “conflict has killed our dreams.”

I’d like to think that those dreams are not dead, but they are on life support.

As I told diplomats at the UN General Assembly today, to get the country back on its feet, we must first recognize this conflict for what it is – and what it isn’t:

  • It’s not a tribal conflict, because ethnic identity doesn’t determine allegiance on the ground.
  • And it’s not a military conflict, because civilians, not soldiers, are bearing the brunt of the violence.
  • In many ways it isn’t even a political conflict, because that would imply that it’s about competing visions for governing this nation.

No, this is a hostage situation. Twelve million people are being held hostage by small numbers of men who are not only content to watch as their country burns, but eager to throw more fuel onto the fire.

Until we are honest with ourselves – and with the parties to the conflict – about that reality, we can’t begin to restore Nancy’s hopes and those of her countrymen and women.

The South Sudanese I met last week remained strong and resilient in the face of the crisis, but each passing day that we fail to act makes it just a little bit harder for them to go on.

So we must stop with our excuses: “it’s too complex;” “it costs too much;” “we have compassion fatigue.”

What is complicated about wanting to go to a school not occupied by armed men?

What price tag would you put on Nancy’s future, and that of 12 million others?

And how would you explain your compassion fatigue to Esther, a mother of four living in a Ugandan refugee camp who is taking care of three orphans she came across as she fled for her life?

We can no longer be complacent, or we risk being complicit.

As we sit here today, some South Sudanese are throwing fuel on the fire, while others are trying desperately to put it out:

  • The local chiefs negotiating peace agreements with other war-weary communities.
  • Activists like #AnaTaban, spreading a message of peace through the arts.
  • The South Sudanese aid workers who deliver the majority of humanitarian assistance, 76 of whom have lost their lives in doing so since the beginning of this conflict.
  • And the young man I recently met who put down his gun and picked up a hammer thanks to an Oxfam-funded carpentry program.

It’s high time we throw our lot in with the hostages, not the hostage-takers, with the firefighters, not the arsonists.

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  1. annedietrich.juba@gmail.com'anne

    Thank you, Abby, and keep on the good work – I worked there from 2005-10, and I am moved by what you wrote. Keep the good work going – it is needed more than ever!

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