Voices: The endless agony of South Sudan

By Sherry Ricchiardi

South Sudan’s declaration of independence in July 2011 was hailed as a triumph of American foreign policy. Revelers danced in the streets of the world’s newest nation. A war-ravaged patch of Africa was being reborn. The optimism was short-lived. During the past 21 months, government and opposition forces have been accused of torture, mass rape and slaughter of innocents. Atrocities described by human rights groups are mind-boggling. The new state that America helped to create and bolster with billions of dollars in aid has turned into a killing field, sabotaged by its own leaders. My emotional tie to the East African nation began with an invitation to speak at a World Press Freedom Day Conference in May and conduct workshops with local journalists.

I took heart in late August when the warring parties ratified a peace deal that could end South Sudan’s agony. But it’s hard to be optimistic. Previous pacts have failed before the ink was dry; this was the eighth such deal since civil war broke out in December 2013. On Tuesday, South Sudan Vice President James Wani urged lawmakers to support the pact, despite the fact there continues to be heavy fighting between the government and the rebels. When I departed for Juba, the sprawling capital on the Nile River, I had serious misgivings. How safe would it be? What could I accomplish? Would the journalists be approachable? Upon arrival, the aircraft bounced along a pockmarked runway toward the ramshackle terminal. A fixer greeted me and led the way to an armored vehicle. During the drive to the hotel, I saw vestiges of desperate poverty, with emaciated children squatting listlessly by the roadside.

There is no power grid in Juba, a city of 300,000 awash in weapons and squalid living conditions. The drab landscape of reddish brown dust is littered with garbage. When the sun goes down, generators rattle to life. The receptionist at Hotel Regency warned me not to go out after dark. Armed robberies and home invasions are common, she said. Within 24 hours on the ground, my misgivings were put to rest. The journalists I met exuded warmth and eagerness to befriend an outsider. Why had I come to this distressed place? they wondered. Was I afraid? Was it true that all American journalists owned computers and automobiles? I shared tea with Veronica Lucy Gordon, who founded the Association of Media Women of South Sudan and started her own radio station, and Alfred Taban, feisty editor in chief of the independent Juba Monitor. Taban had been arrested in March 2013 for an editorial he wrote that offended the government.

I met neophytes who traveled for hours in jam-packed buses to attend their first journalism training.  Some had not gone past sixth grade but functioned as the eyes and ears for news in their locales. There are reporters in remote areas who do not know how to type, never mind own a computer. They dictate stories by cellphone. During workshops, some of the participants described atrocities they dared not report under their own bylines. They would kill us, said a freelancer who drove from a village near the Ugandan border. When I inquired why he stays in such a risky business, he responded that a free press was the oxygen of democracy. It was unthinkable that they be silenced. At that moment, I knew exactly why I had come to South Sudan. At the conference, I got a taste of what South Sudanese journalists face from their government. Information Minister Michael Makuei strode to the podium and berated, threatened and scolded journalists as if they were disobedient children. It was clear: Those who report about the rebels are enemies of the state and subject to arrest. Newspapers and TV stations have been shuttered for straying from that dictate; security forces invade newsrooms at will. And there is even worse news.

Five media professionals have been determined to have been killed for their work since January, and it seems likely that two others were as well, according to Tom Rhodes, East Africa correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists. South Sudan ranks near the very top of the list of the deadliest countries for the media this year, according to CPJ. No one I met during my eight-day stay voiced optimism about the country’s political and economic future. The United States remains a key player, investing $1.2 billion last year. The continent’s 54th state is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa. Before I go to sleep each night, I check to see if the treaty is holding. Too often, I learn of more cease-fire violations. That does not bode well for the anguished masses or for journalists operating on the razor’s edge.

Source- USA Today

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