South Sudan: Needs in a swamp refuge grow

Story and Photos by   Patrick Meinhardt

Story and Photos by Patrick Meinhardt

The New Humanitarian - At the centre of al-Sudd swamp, one of the world’s largest wetland areas, is Old Fangak, an isolated town that has become a haven for tens of thousands of people fleeing South Sudan’s interminable conflict.

But safety comes at a price. The population of Old Fangak in northern Fangak State has grown tenfold since 2013, up from 5,000 people to 50,000. The influx has depleted local food resources, sending food prices soaring and leaving many in the community reliant on humanitarian aid flown in to the small landing strip, or boated in during the rainy season.

In the wake of a shaky truce agreed in September last year fighting did stop across large parts of South Sudan. But a power-sharing government due to have been installed on 12 May as the final step in a peace deal has been postponed for at least another six months.

Although the displaced in Old Fangak want to return to their homes at some point, nobody is yet willing to bank on the sustainability of the peace process between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar – still divided by disagreements over the future of a unified army, security in the capital, Juba, and state borders.

Derived from the Arabic for “barrier”, al-Sudd has proved an effective obstacle to the various fighting forces in a war that has claimed almost 400,000 lives and forced four million people from their homes since it began in 2013.

Photojournalist Patrick Meinhardt recently visited Old Fangak to document the lives of those sheltering in this remote area between the Phow and White Nile rivers.

Refugees like Samuel Gony Gor paddled their way to Old Fangak in canoes from neighbouring Unity State to find sanctuary, braving crocodiles and venomous snakes, sustaining themselves on water lilies as they pressed on.

Gor reached the town in early 2017 with his wife and seven children to escape fighting in his home in Unity State – violence so severe it triggered a famine as people were driven from their farms and livestock were stolen.

“We spent one month in the bush. Many gave up running due to hunger,” Gor said. “I believe we are safe in Old Fangak. Here you can establish a place to stay without constant threats to your life.”

The UN declared the famine in Unity State over in June last year. But across the country over six million people are still facing extreme hunger, and the number could rise to close to seven million at the peak of the lean season between May and July. A further 50,000 people could be at risk of renewed famine.

One reason is that food production has not picked up, despite last year’s truce. “It’s still too early to judge the peace agreement’s effect on food production,” said Moses Habib, the humanitarian coordinator of a Finnish NGO called Finn Church Aid.

That’s because it takes time before farmers displaced by the conflict dare return to their fields and for markets to recover, said Habib. In addition, a slow donor response has squeezed aid budgets: South Sudan’s $1.5 billion humanitarian response plan for 2019 has so far only received $123 million in funding.

Clean water sources in Old Fangak are scarce. There are a few boreholes, with people mainly relying on rivers or other water sources in the swamp. Gor irrigates his farm with a pedal pump donated by Finn Church Aid and grows onions, cabbage, okra, tomatoes, sorghum, and maize.

He counts himself lucky because he can sell part of his harvest at the local market. As a result, his family eats two meals a day and the children are in school.


S. Sudan's displaced pin hope of recovery on peace deal

JUBA, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- By the time Angelina Gatbang Biel left her home in Malakal, a town in northeast of South Sudan about five years ago, everything including the family house, cloths and jewelry had already been reduced into ruins and her husband disappeared.

"What happened in 2013 was very bad. We lost all our belongings," Biel told Xinhua in Old Fangak, a remote, but densely populated area in the former Jonglei region in northeast South Sudan.

Like thousands of others, Beil and her two children were displaced from what was previously one of South Sudan's largest cities but reduced into "ghost town" in late 2013 when civil war erupted in the east African country.

Now living some 100 kilometers away from Malakal, the 44-year-old said she has never heard from her husband since they got separated nearly six years ago.

Biel said she does not even know whether he is alive or dead.

South Sudan's civil war has created one of the world's biggest displacement crises as some 4 million people were displaced, according to UN estimates.

A peace deal signed in August 2015 between the rival leaders under UN led to the establishment of a transitional unity government but it was shattered by renewed fighting in July 2016.

Biel said a new peace deal signed by several warring factions in September 2018 gives her renewed hope of finding her husband and also rebuilding her shattered family.

"If this is a real peace agreement, I want to find out exactly where my husband is. This is my first plan after peace," Biel said.

"We are looking forward that if it (peace) can be real, then one should be able to live his or her normal life. That's what we are looking forward. I want to go back to where I come from," said Beil.

Beil is not alone in the struggle. Sarah Maleth and her husband fled Malakal in 2014, and has since been residing at her parents' home in Fangak.

"We are very tired of suffering. This conflict has killed many people and left us very poor. Let me say I'm lucky to have both my parents alive. Those without husbands or parents are suffering too much," the 20-year-old Maleth said.

She said although she still feels reluctant to leave old Fangak, which has acted as safe haven for thousands of displaced people for the past five years, she would go home if the peace deal hold.

"I hope with the signing of the peace, I can go and stay with my husband, we have been separated from each other for a long time," Maleth said.

"I urge our leaders who signed the peace deal to hold it firm and never let it down again. So many people have died, so many are separated from their families. If this peace can last, I think most of the problems facing us will end," she added.

Despite the fragile situation in the world's youngest country, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported last month that some 20,000 South Sudanese refugees had voluntarily returned home from Uganda.

Samuel Jikany, deputy head of Relief and Rehabilitation in Old Fangak, said since the signing of the agreement last year, many families visited their abandoned homes for the first time in five years.

Jikany said some displaced families have expressed desire to return home but are still betting on the success of the latest peace deal.

"It was a joy that the peace agreement has been signed. People begun to move to locations that they did not access for the last five years," Jikany said.

"The community is looking forward to going back to their places if there is going to be real peace," he said.

South Sudan conflicting parties sign final peace deal

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Radio Tamazuj - South Sudanese arch-foes this evening signed a peace agreement, aimed at ending the devastating civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.

President Kiir and opposition groups, including his arch-rival Riek Machar signed the final deal in Ethiopia, under which the main opposition leader is set to return to a new unity government as first vice presidents, one of five vice presidents.

As part of the signed power-sharing deal, Kiir will remain president.

The deal, which paves the way to peace and stability in the war torn country, was signed in the presence of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his counterparts from the region, along with foreign diplomats.

The rival leaders under the terms of the new deal will have eight months to form a transitional government, which will run for three years.

The final deal come as part of a regional push aimed at achieving peace in the world’s youngest nation.

The IGAD Council of Ministers in its meeting in Addis Ababa this afternoon nullified some of the five reservations expressed previously by the warring parties in Khartoum.

The head of IGAD's Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) for South Sudan, Festus Mogae, has officially resigned after the parties signed the peace accord to allow new leadership during South Sudan's new government.

Edmund Yakani, a prominent civil society activist, confirmed that the peace deal was signed by President Kiir, opposition leader Riek Machar, SPLM- FDs, SSOA and other political parties.

He congratulated the conflicting parties of South Sudan for taking the decision to make peace in the country.

The activist urged the parties to implement the peace deal in good faith.

Yakani, who is the executive director of the non-profit Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), said they want 12 September declared as a national day for transforming the society from violence to peace.

Advocacy group expresses concerns

The US-based Enough Project said the peace deal signed in Addis Ababa between the government and armed opposition groups has significant flaws, including failing to address the looting by leaders of state resources and revenues.

The group said these shortcomings could easily lead the country right back to full-scale war.

John Prendergast, Founding Director of the Enough Project and Co-Founder of The Sentry, said: "Today’s peace deal lacks meaningful checks and balances on a presidency that already wields immense powers, which are primarily used to loot the country’s resources and deploy extreme violence against opponents. South Sudan’s vast oil revenues have been pocketed by high-level politicians and their families and carted out of the country. This new peace deal fails to undo the theft of government revenue by entrusting the same corrupt politicians without any meaningful checks and balances."

Meanwhile Brian Adeba, Deputy Director of Policy at the Enough Project, said: "This peace deal is simply a division of the spoils between the rival factions with the biggest guns. The signed agreement reinforces the status quo and increases the odds of a full-fledged return to war, in its failure to address state capture by these politicians or reform in hijacked institutions. The U.S. and other willing nations should impose sanctions and anti-money laundering measures on the networks of South Sudanese officials and their commercial collaborators who continue to loot the country’s resources and to deny them access to the international banking system."

This holiday season you can change a life!

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Banak is a normal 10-year-old-boy, who likes to study and play with his friends... the difference between him and other children you may know is that he happened to be born in South Sudan. Drawing that particular lottery ticket has led him to see his father murdered in Juba during the start of the latest civil war, and to develop Spinal Tuberculosis due to lack of adequate medical care. This has given him a life where his family is broken, his back is twisted, and he is in chronic pain. Banak's back and body can be fixed, and be as free as his beautiful mind. You can make this happen. Please help us get him to Kenya where he can get the surgery he needs.

Follow this link to our GoFundMe Campaign. Every dollar goes directly to helping us pay for his surgery through our partner non-profit Crosscurrents International Institute.

Marko Maze, 13, is one of the young former fighters who attends The Pibor Boys Primary School, which hosts former child soldiers. Photo by Peter Bauza

Marko Maze, 13, is one of the young former fighters who attends The Pibor Boys Primary School, which hosts former child soldiers. Photo by Peter Bauza

Washington Post - Published on November 10, 2017

PIBOR, South Sudan

Outside, the young men with guns were playing dominoes and drinking tea. Babacho Mama could hear them through the sheet-metal walls of his room.

They had once been members of the same militia, a brigade of children with AK-47s. Now, Mama stood alone, sweating through his white T-shirt, a boy plucked from one of the world’s most brutal wars but not so sure he’d been saved.

“Maybe I need to go back,” he said. “It’s better to die in combat than in hunger.”

Babacho Mama, a former child soldier, heads to English class at the primary school in Pibor, South Sudan.

He was 16 now. Or 17 or 18 or 19. He had spent much of his childhood lugging a rifle, and his age had become an approximation, less relevant than his ability to fight.

In 2015, during a lull in South Sudan’s civil war, Mama and 1,774 other boys promised the United Nations that their lives as combatants had ended. They handed over their baggy military fatigues in choreographed ceremonies that amounted to one of the largest releases of child soldiers in recent history.

“I’m done with fighting,” Mama told a social worker after the release.

“Back to learning,” aid groups painted on a new primary school in Pibor.

Two years later, the boys are returning to the battlefield. Development programs to help them have failed. The school barely functions.

Click here to continue reading.

BBC: South Sudan declares famine in Unity State

Queuing for food aid - civil war and economic collapse are being blamed. (AP)

Queuing for food aid - civil war and economic collapse are being blamed. (AP)

February 20, 2017

A famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan, the first to be announced in any part of the world in six years.

The government and the United Nations report that some 100,000 people are facing starvation, with a million more on the brink of famine.

A combination of civil war and an economic collapse have been blamed.

There have been warnings of famine in Yemen, Somalia and north-eastern Nigeria, but South Sudan is the first to declare one.

The famine is currently affecting parts of the Unity state in South Sudan, but humanitarian groups have warned that the crisis could spread if urgent help is not received.

Aid agencies, including the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the children's fund Unicef, said that 4.9 million people - more than 40% of South Sudan's population - are in urgent need of food.

When is a famine declared?

Food shortages can lead to large numbers of people lacking nutrition, but only rarely do they amount to famine, according to UN humanitarian criteria.

Long periods of drought and other problems reducing the supply of food do not necessarily result in a famine.

A famine is declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are:

  • at least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope
  • acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%
  • the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons

The declaration of a famine carries no binding obligations on the UN or member states, but serves to focus global attention on the problem.

Source: UN

What is a famine?

The wooden bridge between death and safety

The report on Monday said that an increase in humanitarian assistance was needed in order to prevent the famine from spreading to other vulnerable areas.

"If sustained and adequate assistance is delivered urgently, the hunger situation can be improved in the coming months and further suffering mitigated," the report said.

Head of the WFP in South Sudan, Joyce Luma, said that the famine was "man-made" after three years of conflict across the country stifled crop production and hit farmers and rural livelihoods.

The impact of the conflict, combined with high food prices, economic disruption and low agricultural production has resulted in the area becoming "food insecure", the report added.

South Sudan also experienced a famine in 1998, during the war for independence from Sudan.

Last week, the WFP warned that more than 20 million people may face starvation in a series of famines over the next six months.

The WFP's chief economist, Arif Husain, said a combination of wars and drought meant that for the first time in recent years, aid workers were now talking about four simultaneous famines in separate parts of the world.

He added that despite record levels of international humanitarian aid distribution, there was not enough to look after all the people in need.

BBC: South Sudan refugee crisis

Refugees end up in settlements in Uganda. (AP)

Refugees end up in settlements in Uganda. (AP)

December 16, 2016

For three years South Sudan has tumbled deeper into self-inflicted chaos, and it now finds itself on the brink of something even more terrifying.

United Nations officials rarely use the words "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing," but they now say potentially both could envelop the world's youngest country.

Since violence flared in Juba in July and spread to the previously peaceful southern Equatoria states of South Sudan, 340,000 people have fled the violence into neighbouring Uganda.

That is more than any other country this year - the UN says 200,000 people have fled Syria in 2016.

Every day, on average, another 2,500 South Sudanese become refugees, and the stories of what they escaped and what they saw on the way, add to the evidence of killing, rape and the targeting of civilians along ethnic lines.

Nelson Ladu Thomas has twice walked over the small wooden bridge dividing South Sudan and Uganda at an unofficial border crossing known as Busia.

A trickle of a stream divides these two countries and there are small bridges or fallen trees every couple of kilometres.

Escaping to safety takes several days of trekking through the bus. (AP)

Escaping to safety takes several days of trekking through the bus. (AP)

The first time he crossed was with his immediate family; the second - a day later - was with his brother's wife and her five children who he had gone back to help.

'They don't want us'

Six-year-old Moriswani was limping up the hill to the Ugandan police post where their possessions were inspected before being allowed on to a reception centre a little further up the road.

I asked him what they had left behind.

"They are killing people, sleeping with wives, stealing. They are not shooting you, they are cutting you with a knife. Even small children can be beaten down," Mr Thomas told me.

The children gulped water and sat exhausted in the shade of a harsh sun.

"They don't want us," he said, and gave his explanation of why his town of Yei, just 80km (50 miles) from the border, had become a place he had to leave.

"These tribes of Dinka, they don't want Equatorians, they don't want… Nuer. They don't want them."

Ethnic violence has dominated the crisis in South Sudan.

The civil war began as a dispute between the Dinka President Salva Kiir, and former Vice-President Riek Machar who is Nuer.

Equatorians only started to be targeted in July, when the violence spread to their part of the country after rebel troops fled the capital.

Behind South Sudan's crisis

(AP) Vice-President Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir

(AP) Vice-President Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir

 

  • December 2013: President Salva Kiir (right) accused former Vice-President Riek Machar (left) of plotting a coup
  • Fighting between factions of the presidential guard took an ethnic turn between Dinkas and Nuers
  • Thousands killed and millions forced from their homes
  • Many accusations of atrocities, such as rape and people being burnt alive
  • April 2016: Machar returned to Juba under peace deal and becomes vice-president again
  • July 2016: Peace deal collapses, many killed and raped in Juba, Machar's forces forced to flee
  • Government troops accused Equatorians of harbouring rebel soldiers, reports of rebel troops targeting civilians, leading to new flow of refugees

In a long line of people at a nearby refugee reception centre, Otima Amos, 21, explained how he had crossed the border after walking through the bush for many days with 16 other people - most children, and among them two-year-old twins."We walked up to here - without any other form of transport," he said.

"It was very hard because they were killing people. If you were a boy you would be killed, if you were a girl or a woman they would just rape you. If not, you would be killed."

They were afraid they would be caught as they tried to escape.

Otima Amos walked many days through the bush to escape the atrocities

Otima Amos walked many days through the bush to escape the atrocities

Refugees tell of killing, rape and the targeting of civilians along ethnic lines

Refugees tell of killing, rape and the targeting of civilians along ethnic lines

 

Biggest settlement

Uganda is coping extremely well with the huge influx of refugees.

With the help of aid agencies, within 36 hours each family is allocated a 30m square patch of land and a tarpaulin to set up a shelter and start planting crops.

Faida Sarah arrived in August with her children, but already has okra ready to harvest as well as onions, tomatoes and greens bursting out of the ground.

Faida Sarah has her own vegetable plot in Bidi Bidi

Faida Sarah has her own vegetable plot in Bidi Bidi

Some of the refugees arriving in Uganda are sheltered here in the Bidi Bidi camp

Some of the refugees arriving in Uganda are sheltered here in the Bidi Bidi camp

The reason she left Yei was because one night soldiers came round to her home, demanded car keys from her husband and then hacked him to death just outside the house.

In July Bidi Bidi was a village, but now it is one of the biggest refugee settlements in the world - home to more than a quarter of a million people and covering 250 square kilometres.

But now home to nearly a million refugees, Uganda is beginning to struggle with its generous approach.

In the settlement, the arriving refugees receive medical assistance

In the settlement, the arriving refugees receive medical assistance

"This has been unrelenting since July," said Nasir Abel Fernandes, the UNHCR's senior emergency coordinator in northern Uganda.

"The international community has to pay attention, and pressure the South Sudanese leaders to stop this, as it's a massacre of civilians from both sides."

He says supplying water to the refugees is a problem, as it has to be trucked in.

As many as half the refugees are children, and schools are already running - exams were being marked and a presentation prepared for our visit.

Girls sang and danced in a circle then Patricia Mercy, 16, stepped forward with confidence to deliver her poem.

"War, war, war," she began, "who are you and where do you come from?"

The confidence and resilience of her performance hiding deep trauma.

"You have killed my mother and father, even my brothers and sisters, leaving me to be called an orphan."

There are so many terrible stories here of what South Sudan is doing to its own people.

Experts call for isolation of anti-peace elements

An article from the Sudan Tribune (www.sudantribune.com)

September 22, 2016 (JUBA) - Different experts testifying on Tuesday before high ranking legislators in the United States Senate on Foreign Relations have unanimously recommended and approved isolation of “anti-peace elements” in South Sudan conflict.

Former South Sudanese minister and academic Luka Biong Deng (Photo Courtesy of the Enough Project)

Former South Sudanese minister and academic Luka Biong Deng (Photo Courtesy of the Enough Project)

Luka Biong Deng, Global Fellow for Peace Research Institute in Oslo who presented his testimonies to the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee as a witness, said there are elements both in government of President Salva Kiir and opposition faction of former First Vice President, Riek Machar, that are against peace and are the ones igniting violence and influencing public opinion against the friends of South Sudan such as the region, AU, UN and Troika countries.

Deng explained that the voices of the anti-peace elements, who he did not mention by names, became very clear in government as they started even undermining the reconciliatory positions of the President towards friends of South Sudan, saying this was clearly stated in his recent speech in the parliament and his meeting in Juba with members of the UN Security Council.

“These elements are driven more by wartime vendettas and narrow self-interest. They have actively encouraged conflict ever since. When the big tent collapsed along the old dividing lines it became obvious that the Government of South Sudan includes some officials who are working hard to implement the Agreement, some who are undecided; and others who are against the peace because it doesn’t serve their agenda,” Deng, a former minister for presidential affairs in South Sudan, told the U.S. Senators on Tuesday.

“In terms of achieving the much-needed environment of political will, the challenge is to strengthen the supporters of peace, win over the undecided and isolate the anti-peace elements,” he added.

Meanwhile Kate Almquist Knopf, Director, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, U.S. Department of Defense, said president Salva Kiir and his main political rival and former deputy, Riek Machar, can be peacefully excluded from South Sudan’s political and economic life if they see the walls closing in on them and are offered a pathway that ensures their physical safety outside the country.

This exclusion, she said, “will require a sufficiently robust package of disincentives for their opposition to the transitional administration. Such a package could include the credible threat of prosecution by the ICC or the Hybrid Court envisioned (but stalled) under the current peace agreement, the imposition by the UN Security Council of time-triggered travel bans and asset freezes, pre-emptive contract sanctions to cast a shadow on the validity of oil and other resource concessions by Kiir’s regime, and a comprehensive UN arms embargo, which is long overdue.”

She claimed that the exclusion of Kiir and Machar from the transition would defuse much of the “impetus to continue the war” or to oppose a transitional UN and AU administration among the Nuer, Dinka, and other forces fighting for revenge, retribution, or in self-defense.

“UN and AU administration would also provide assurances to all sides that they would not be excluded and therefore could participate in the national political process,” the U.S. defense official said.

The US official said South Sudan as a country has ceased to exist after failing to virtually carry her sovereign responsibility, providing a ground for international administration.

“South Sudan is not on the brink of state failure. South Sudan is not in the process of failing. South Sudan has failed, at great cost to its people and with increasingly grave implications for regional security, including the stability of important U.S. partners in the Horn of Africa,” she argued.

“South Sudan has ceased to perform even the minimal functions and responsibilities of a sovereign state. The government exercises no monopoly over coercive power, and its ability to deliver public services, provide basic security, and administer justice is virtually nonexistent. While the Kiir regime may claim legal sovereignty, in practice domestic sovereignty is entirely contested and discredited,” she added.

She further held President Kiir’s administration responsible for refusing to comply and fully implement key provisions of the peace agreement, asserting that the regime has effectively learnt how to buy time instead of acting.

“Indeed, Kiir’s regime demonstrates regularly that it has learned the worst lessons from Khartoum—to buy time, to obfuscate and deny the gravity of the humanitarian and human rights crisis, to take three steps back and then a half step forward, confusing the international community and deferring any consequences,” she further explained in a testimony obtained by Sudan Tribune.

She accused President Kiir of working to strengthen “Dinka domination” over other ethnicities in South Sudan, adding it would be better to place South Sudan under trusteeship of the African Union and the United Nations for a number of years.

Crisis in South Sudan

The people of South Sudan voted themselves into existence as the youngest nation on earth in 2011.  Their jubilation was breathtaking; their issues daunting.  South Sudan began as one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking low on critical indicators: the world's highest maternal mortality, and one of the lowest levels of education.  Despite this, we all glowed with the thought that the future could be different.

Our high hopes were shattered on December 15, 2013.

Our wards overflowed with war wounded. We still needed to care for the women and children.

On Monday morning, 16 December, BBC announced there had been gunfire in Juba Town, our capital city, all night.  No explanation was given.  We ran to ask George, who always knows what's happening. He was drinking tea in the market.  No one had heard of problems in Juba.  Using his satellite phone (We have no mobile coverage in Old Fangak), George called a variety of people in Juba, including some generals native to Fangak.  "Yes there is shooting.  We do not know what is happening.  It is bad.  Call us back in an hour.”  An hour later, George called again.  They said the same thing.  “We do not know what is happening.  It is bad.”  And this time they added “It is war.”

Thus the violence began.  The South Sudanese Human Rights Commission established that from December 16th to 18th, over 600 people were killed and more than 800 woundedaround Juba. Most of them were Nuer.

Although there were rumored disagreements within the government and the ruling party, that debate did not run along tribal lines.  Within a week of the slaughter in Juba, violence overflowed to the rest of the country, and everything changed in South Sudan.  Nuer were not safe in much of Dinka land; Dinka were not safe in much of Nuer land; and no one was safe in the big cities.  There are wonderful tales of individuals from one tribe aiding those of another, but the overall horror of the massacres attacks on refugees in churches and hospitals, was unimaginable. How many generations will it take to heal from revenge killings along tribal lines?

Tens of thousands of lives have been saved by the UN's protection camps.   UN actions have surely helped stave off a Rwanda-like disaster.  But all our people have someone dead, someone missing, someone unable to return home.

And we had so many plans that simply stopped.

And what has happened in Old Fangak?

Within days, the head chief of Paguir (one of the biggest Nuer areas represented in Old Fangak) and the head chief of Kuolrai (the Dinka area served by Old Fangak) met to reassure each other that they were brothers.  That meeting--along with the fact that we have no roads to drive tanks on, and no oil to attract outside interesthas saved our area from gunfire and massacres.

Our clinic remained open every day, a feat not matched in any other place in Jonglei state.  Some days flow better than others. News that our patients’ relatives have been killed saddens us ; news of a lost relative who has been found alive spreads smiles all over old Fangak.

With the help of Red Cross surgical teams and Medecins Sans Frontiers, and food from the World Food Program, our incredible staff cared for hundreds of war wounded, and thousands of internally displaced over the past five months.  Meanwhile, strengthening our programs for maternal/child health, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases is more crucial than ever.  Healthier people can better endure the rigors of war.

NYTimes: S. Sudan Feels Freedom Close at Hand

On Sunday, after decades of war and more than two million lives lost, southern Sudan will get the moment it has been yearning for, a referendum on independence. Sudanese arrived by boat at Juba, in the country's south. (Tyler Hicks/ The New York Times)

On Sunday, after decades of war and more than two million lives lost, southern Sudan will get the moment it has been yearning for, a referendum on independence. Sudanese arrived by boat at Juba, in the country's south. (Tyler Hicks/ The New York Times)

JUBA, Sudan — Philip Geng Nyuol started fighting for independence with his hands.

He eventually graduated to a machete, then Molotov cocktails, then a gun.

“I crossed rivers full of crocodiles,” he said. “And slept in camps in Congo. And ate wild fruits in the bush.”

That was nearly 50 years ago — Mr. Nyuol was on the ground floor of southern Sudan’s independence struggle, before the rebels even had proper weapons. The memories come flooding back to him, bright but patchy, like sun streaming through the trees.

After decades of war and more than two million lives lost, southern Sudan has arrived at the moment it has been yearning for, a referendum on independence. Polls opened on Sunday just after 8 a.m. local time. All signs point to the people here voting overwhelmingly for secession, and the largest country on the continent will then begin the delicate process of splitting in two.

The United States government has played a pivotal role in bringing this moment to fruition, pushing the northern and southern Sudanese to sign a peace treaty in 2005 that set the referendum in motion. A proud, new African country is about to be born, but it will step onto the world stage with shaky legs. As it stands now, southern Sudan is one of the poorest places on earth.

Most people here scrape by on less than 75 cents a day. More than three-quarters of adults cannot read. Decades of civil war and marginalization have left the economy so crushed that just about everything is imported, down to eggs. According to Oxfam, a teenage girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing elementary school.

Tens of thousands have flocked back to take part in the referendum, and some analysts, possibly reinforcing stereotypes of Africa as always teetering on the edge, warn south Sudan could be the next Somalia, awash in violence. Already, aid agencies are ringing the alarm about a lack of food, water, health care and sanitation.

“We have an unfolding humanitarian crisis, layered on top of an existing and forsaken one,” said the International Rescue Committee, an American aid organization that works in Sudan.

But this is a land of shared sacrifice, and that may be a cohesive force that helps hold southern Sudan together. After all the years of guerrilla warfare and hardship, oppression and persecution at the hands of the Arabs who rule Sudan, people here are deeply invested in holding a peaceful referendum and building the world’s newest nation.

“We are underdeveloped, yes, but we will do it,” said Gideon Gatpan Thoar, the information minister of Unity State, near the north-south border.

United Nations officials here say something remarkable has already happened. In 2009, ethnic fighting swept the south, with several thousand people killed in military-grade attacks, fueled by longstanding ethnic rivalries and a sudden, suspicious increase in high-powered weaponry. Many southerners suspected that the government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, was instigating the violence, just as it had in the past when Khartoum fomented a civil war within a civil war.

But in the past six months, there has been almost no major ethnic violence. One of the last holdouts, a renegade general who had been leading a revolt deep in the bush, recently agreed to a cease-fire. “What we are seeing is a real effort for reconciliation,” said a United Nations official in Juba, who was not authorized to speak to the news media and spoke anonymously. “All eyes are on the referendum. They’re all trying to get along now.”

But the official added, “Everybody knows these issues will come up in the future.”

Many northern Sudanese who work in the south are now fleeing. Stocks of goods are going down; prices are going up. People are still talking about what-ifs and the possibility of war, because even after the referendum, some very thorny issues need to be carefully handled before the south can peacefully break off. (The actual declaration of independence is scheduled for July.).

The south produces around 75 percent of Sudan’s oil, but it is landlocked, so some arrangement will have to be struck for southern oil to keep flowing through the pipeline in the north. The border will also have to be demarcated, including the tinderbox Abyei area, where Arab nomads historically have crossed back and forth. Billions of dollars of debt will have to be shared.

But most southerners are not thinking of technicalities. This is not simply a political moment, a time for a new line on the map or a new seat at the United Nations.

“This is a dream,” Mr. Nyuol said, “a dream we always hoped would come true, even if it took one thousand years.”

All over the streets of Juba, the capital of the south, brightly colored banners flaunt images of a single open hand, the ballot symbol that stands for secession. In towns across the south, loudspeakers blast messages of freedom. And salvation.

“We are going, we are going, we are going to the promised land,” sang a preacher in Yei, about 100 miles southwest of Juba.

The south is filled with people who have paid for this referendum with their own blood. Amputees hobble down the street in Juba with barely a glance up at the new ministries that their lost limbs helped bring to reality.

Veterans are everywhere, reflective of a society in which men, women and children were all mobilized to fight for independence.

Rose Hawa Simon, a copper-skinned woman with a million-dollar smile, never thought she would see this day, or even that she would be alive right now. She was one of the few female tank drivers for the southern rebels, and in March 1997 her tank was hit and she was shot twice fleeing the flaming wreckage. She does not question the sacrifice.

“Our people were suffering, our people were killed,” she said. “I said: ‘Let me join. Let me go.’ I started training on that tank, because my heart was broken.”

Alex Taban is another former bush fighter. His son, Jackson, followed in his footsteps and joined the rebellion. Jackson was killed in 1997 and buried on the battlefield. As the referendum approaches, Mr. Taban said, “The thoughts are there.”

The British colonizers planted a political minefield in the 1920s when they drew a line across the bottom third of Sudan and declared that northern and southern Sudanese should remain separate. Part of the reason was to check the spread of Islam. To this day, the upper part of Sudan is mainly Muslim and controlled by Arabs; the lower third is mostly animist and Christian, linguistically and culturally more in tune with Kenya, Uganda and central Africa.

A group of southern soldiers mutinied in 1955, a year before Sudan was granted independence. The civil war had begun.

By 1958, Mr. Nyuol, who is in his 70s (though he is not sure of his exact age), was organizing protests at his high school.

“Even then, we could tell what was happening,” he said. “They wanted to Islamize us. They were building mosques all over the place. They wanted us to change our names.”

He went to the forest in 1963. He laid ambushes. He firebombed the cars of Arabs. In the 1980s, after working as a high school math teacher, he ran underground cells to send food and matériel into the bush.

He planned to show up at the polls at dawn on Sunday, even though voting will continue for one week to allow people in far-flung areas to cast their ballots. He will vote for the open hand, for secession, he said.

“We have waited for this, we have fought for it,” he said.

And when the voting is over, he will return to his work building an archive of old pictures of his comrades who died in the 1960s.