Less than a year after declaring independence, a border state in the new African country is troubled by the return of hundreds of thousands of war refugees and a deteriorating relationship with the north.
BAR EL-GHAZAL, South Sudan -- Watching it from the air, the earthen, unpaved road, red and cutting razor-like through the flat and nearly featureless beige landscape, is the only hint that Northern Bar el-Ghazal state is anything but a vast, empty plain. Even then, the only piece of major infrastructure in the entire state was just built in 2007. Before that, this border area between the Republic of Sudan and what is now the Republic of South Sudan was one of the most treacherous war zones on earth. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army, a rebel movement fighting for the south's marginalized non-Arabs, recruited heavily from the state's almost entirely Dinka population. Their enemy, the army of the Arab-ruled Republic of Sudan, led a scorched-earth campaign in this heartland of the southern insurgency. According to researcher Millard Burr, nearly a quarter-million people were killed in Bar el-Ghazal alone during the 1990s.
Today, Northern Bar el-Ghazal is one of the most peaceful states in South Sudan, which became independent from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011. The state is home to 1.2 million people, around one seventh of the new country's population. Most are herders and subsistence farmers who live in mud-hut villages along improvised and nearly-impassable roads. It isn't an empty wilderness, nor does it feel particularly poor, in terms of the resources that have long driven life here. Aquifers and even some riverbeds are full year-round, and there are enough water resources to support large herds of cattle. A dowry of 40 or more cows is not uncommon. Fruitful annual rains and truckloads of goods from the north keep the dusty marketplaces buzzing even during the dry season.
"Life in Khartoum was a little bit good, but here life is difficult."
But the region is painfully underdeveloped. Nearly 30 years of war, as well as Khartoum's political and economic marginalization of the restive and non-Arab south, had held Bar el-Ghazal back. Even after the war ended in 2005, the northern government did virtually nothing to build up the area, believing (correctly, as it turned out), that the South would choose to secede when independence eventually came to a popular vote, as was mandated by the peace treaty between the SPLM and the government. The area has only a couple of miles of paved road, around the state capital of Aweil. According to Caesar Atem, the Director General of the state's Ministry of Education, 80% of the state's schools have no physical buildings -- students simply learn under large, shady trees, which offer no relief or protection during the rainy season. The war, and the uncertainty that followed the 2005 treaty, wasted nearly 30 years that could have gone toward development, but mostly went towards waging -- and, for civilians, simply surviving -- one of the worst conflicts in post-colonial Africa. Most children didn't go to school during the war years, an households were too afraid of forced displacement to invest in anything more than subsistence farming.
After three painful decades, Northern Bahr al-Gazal is still being squeezed. Since independence, the government in Khartoum has cut off the trade routes from the north that had long sustained this part of the South Sudan. (It's not entirely clear why, although relations between the two countries are sour.) While I saw many trucks with northern license plates offloading in local markets, Atem, the education minister, told me that the northern border crossing is closed so often that the state's residents can no longer depend on trade from the north.
"Here we depend on Uganda," he says, "and all the prices shoot up." (Uganda is a nearly three days' drive.) Jamesco Deng, an official with the state's ministry of education, claimed that 90% of people in Northern Bahr al-Gazal rely on trade from across the border. That's probably a high estimate, but the near-quadrupling of food prices in some parts of the state has made life, in this peripheral corner of an already-poor country, even more difficult. Ironically, the people here depend on their former enemy for even basic products.
The state is being squeezed from the south as well, and Northern Bahr al-Gazal is feeling the effects of a still-simmering conflict between north and South Sudan. Last month, the Southern government, faced with evidence of oil theft and saddled with transit costs that are nearly 15 times the market rate, decided it would rather shut down the country's prosperous oil industry than continue to send the lucrative natural resource through a pipeline that terminates in the Republic of Sudan. Inside the country, the shutdown was widely seen as an appropriate response to the north's flagrant violation of the south's national sovereignty. "It is better not to have anything at all then Khartoum stealing our oil," one official in Juba explained to me. But the oil shutdown will deny the government of an astonishing 98% of its expected revenue.
"It is better not to have anything at all then Khartoum stealing our oil."
In Northern Bar el-Ghazal, this means the government will be poorly equipped to handle the ongoing mass arrival of war refugees from the north. Nearly 67,000 returnees have resettled in Bar el-Ghazal since independence, and the total returnee population since the end of the war is already into the hundreds of thousands. The Southern government's response to the returnee problem is simply to resettle people outside of urban areas, where the new arrivals would overburden an already-tight job market.
The north has recently eased up on its threats to deport refugees who lack official work or residency permits after April 8th, the mutually agreed-upon deadline for determining the status of Southern refugees living in the northern Republic. But the mass return of refugees is continuing anyway. Nearly 350,000 southerners have moved to the South Sudan since October of 2010. The young and resource-strapped Southern government has to figure out what to do with them.
Northern Bahr al-Gazal doesn't have many jobs, but it does have a surplus of empty land. The government's solution to the returnee problem is so far to give away plots of undeveloped land to people who have spent most of their lives as house cleaners or construction workers in the more modern, metropolitan Khartoum. The results are ugly: about an hour outside the market town of Akuem is a shanty-town inhabited by returnees from the north, a dusty tract of tightly-clustered and already-suffering wooden shacks topped with tarps provided by the UN High Commission on Refugees. But UNHCR isn't here anymore: the returnees were given 14 days worth of support from the government when they arrived by train in Aweil, followed by three months worth of rations from the World Food Program. Now they're left essentially to their own devices.
"Life in Khartoum was a little bit good, but here life is difficult" says Akon Bol, a returnee who worked as a house cleaner in Khartoum before coming south. "Here, there's no way to work to get money. There isn't even enough money to buy tea."
An American NGO named Samaritan's Purse is providing some returnee families with female goats and training on how to develop a larger flock. Goat's milk could mean better nutrition and a much-needed source of income for some of the returnees. But NGOs can hardly reach everybody. Alex Karaba, a South Sudanese working with Samaritan's Purse, worries that the flood of returnees could push the state's already scant resources to their breaking point.
"With the influx of the returnees here in this area, this year is going to be the same as 1988," Karaba said, in reference to the "terrible famine" that gripped the state that year. "The returnees, they don't have food, they don't have money. And they only rely on what the NGOs are giving now."
Yet Northern Bahr al-Gazal has weathered far worse than this. The Episcopal church in Aweil, which was burned down three times during the decade of the war, is home to an unmarked mass grave from the final year of the conflict. "We cannot count them," pastor Dut Bol said of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army soldiers and civilians buried under a low, gravel mound just behind his church. "Many people were killed," added Angelo Yeut, the church's schoolmaster. "If that hadn't happened, we wouldn't have our freedom."
Back at the state ministry of education, Jamesco Deng, himself an SPLA veteran, said it was only a few years ago that the region had no roads and Southerners had to sneak around a northern army garrison in Awiel just to get from place to place. Now, he's a civil servant in a free South Sudan.
"South Sudan is the last independent country in Africa," he says. When he was a member of the SPLA, he explained, "we were encouraging ourselves to liberate our country so that the young generation that comes after us will not suffer like our grandfathers suffered, and will not suffer like us." Independent Northern Bar el-Ghazal faces daunting challenges. But for now, war, the most daunting challenge of all, is not among them.