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South Sudan: telling it how it is

28 November 2014

It's time to launch a pre-emptive strike against further tragedy, writes Rowan Williams

CHRISTIAN AID Christian Aid / Carl Odera

Undes. res.: Lord Williams visiting the UN camp in Bor, South Sudan in July. Approximately 100,000 people are housed in camps like this one

Undes. res.: Lord Williams visiting the UN camp in Bor, South Sudan in July. Approximately 100,000 people are housed in camps like this one

WOMEN of Destiny may sound like an in-your-face girl band, but in fact it is a small group of women, determined to succeed against pretty well impossible odds, whom I met recently in the world's newest nation, South Sudan.

They had been helped to start selling a few vegetables in the local market, and out of that their ambitions had grown. Saving tiny amounts of money every month, they were on the point of buying a processor to make and market the peanut paste used regularly in local cooking.

Last December, violence erupted yet again in South Sudan. What started as a factional conflict escalated along ethnic lines. Indiscriminate killing, the use of child soldiers, and sexual violence all became common. The area where the women live was wrecked, and many were killed. The women survived, but their entire savings were looted. Now they have to start again, traumatised but determined.

But these are the lucky ones. In the year since last December, one in seven people have fled their homes and land, more than 1.9 million people have been displaced, and about 10,000 killed. More than 100,000 ended up in camps run by the United Nations.

All in all, 3.5 million people have been receiving some kind of humanitarian assistance in recent months. It is hard to coordinate and hard to deliver. Local militias and officials may be obstructive, or demand arbitrary "taxes" for the movement of supplies. The camps have no electrical power or sewage system, and no refrigerated conditions for medical supplies. Educational facilities are almost non-existent.

There are great fears that the violence will escalate once again as the rainy season draws to an end. The humanitarian response this year has helped to avert a famine and contain a cholera outbreak, but a whole year of food production has been lost, and food is already a problem, even in the camps. As many as 2.5 million people may be at risk of severe food shortages in the first quarter of 2015.

The weather has played havoc with essential infrastructure. There are few tarmac roads, and even access by air is limited because of the lack of all-weather airstrips. Not only getting around but also getting produce to market is extremely difficult.

PEOPLE might argue that this is a problem caused by the incompetence of the government in South Sudan; but we can't stand by and wait for South Sudan to turn into a tidy democratic state before people get the support they need. This new country was created after more than half a century of bloody civil war; so most people under 50 have never known anything but conflict. It's not just a matter of emergency help; it's also about working to create a new approach to living together.

This means working with the churches - the most trusted agents in society because of their extraordinary courage and steadiness through the decades of war - to help build peace and trust, and facilitate dialogue that can lead to reconciliation.

The eight years since my last visit have clearly taken their toll on the church leaders I met then, and on the people they serve; and yet they do not despair. They are working for hope by putting their efforts into building peace at the national and local levels. Any appeal to our government - and other govern-ments - needs to flag up not only the terrible urgency of the present crisis, but also the urgency of helping that long-term goal of nation-building.

This means increasing pressure on the warring leaders to stop the futile violence, and doing everything possible to strengthen the voice and the capacity of the people of South Sudan - who are desperate for stability.

Charities such as Christian Aid are working in close partnership with the members of various South Sudanese groups and organisations, many of whom have risked their lives in recent months to provide necessary relief. It is these people who, like the church leaders I know, help me believe that the country can have a future.

They are willing to pay whatever price is needed for other people's well-being; but they can't do it without help, especially given the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

It isn't difficult to find out which charities are doing what in South Sudan and donate to their work. It isn't difficult to email or write to your MP and urge them to support efforts for peace and for humanitarian help. Nor is it difficult to find projects that seek to meet small-scale needs that the churches in South Sudan are dealing with, and to pray for them.

At a time of so many tragedies, it's easy for a long-running disaster in an obscure place to be forgotten. But Africa cannot afford, and the world cannot afford, another failed state, another flood of refugees, another breeding-ground for extremism and anger.

The message from all those I talked with in South Sudan, especially those in the camps, was simple: tell them what it's like. And tell them to pray and to act.

We have a chance to do something immediate before the consequences of the food crisis really set in, and to give the longer-term support needed. I hope with all my heart that we can take it.

The Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth chairs Christian Aid.

To donate to Christian Aid's work in South Sudan, visit www.christianaid.org.uk/give.

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