The flush of optimism that arose in the wake of independence for South Sudan a decade ago faded, then evaporated, along with the flood of foreign interest (and aid) that came in those early and optimistic days.
Today South Sudan is a place where the tangled and connected impacts of conflict and climate change devastate communities in a hurricane of hunger, homelessness and need.
The seasonal (and largely predictable) flooding of the Nile has become a deadly, extreme and unpredictable occurrence as climate patterns have changed. Crops are devastated and vast numbers of people are forced from their homes. More community conflict, more displacement and more starvation are the result.
The latest snapshot from the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicates 8.3 million people - around three-quarters of the population – need assistance. Millions also face the spectre of famine.
Many of those on the move, fleeing the flooding, the ongoing insurgency against the government or communal violence arising from displacement, also must deal with the prospect of crossing or settling on land littered with landmines and unexploded munitions.
This deadly contamination is the result of decades of war. Despite progress in clearing and releasing millions of square metres of land, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) estimate there to be 18.2 million square metres of contaminated land remaining.
Since 1964, there have been at least 5,000 casualties recorded from landmines and unexploded bombs. That figure is likely to be a grave under-estimation. And in the past five years, almost eight out of 10 recorded casualties were children.
It is not difficult to find those whose lives have been shattered by this hidden danger or by the myriad other aspects of the humanitarian crisis which has gripped the country.
People like mother-of-one Mary Joseph, who was just 19 when she stepped on the landmine which changed her life forever. Mary had been in the bush near her home, collecting grass for the roof of the family’s hut, when a blast threw her sideways and damaged her right leg so badly that it had to be amputated.
Mary, who now works for MAG as a domestic assistant in a demining camp, spent two months in hospital and endured painful operations and a slow rehabilitation. But she has rebuilt her life. She has had a second child and has a prosthetic limb fitted so she can walk, work and care for her children. She is, in many ways, one of the lucky ones.
Stephen Rego is less fortunate. He was just 14 when he suffered horrific abdominal injuries as the result of an exploding hand grenade, found by his friend in the school playground. His friend was killed instantly.
Now 21, he recalls the agonising three-hour journey over unmade roads to a hospital in Juba, thinking he was certain to die, desperately frightened and in unbearable pain. Then the months in hospital, undergoing multiple operations. And the long journey to a recovery that never really arrived.
Stephen is still visibly traumatised by the events of seven years ago. His schooling ended the moment that hand grenade exploded (he was incapable of walking the five miles to and from school every day) and he has never managed to find work that he can manage with the disability he carries.
And there are those for whom landmine contamination is just one more obstacle to overcome in already astonishingly difficult and fragile lives. People like the Ifon family, who had lost six of their eight children to disease and malnutrition. They left their village to find a new home closer to medical facilities, determined that their remaining two boys, aged seven and four, would survive childhood. But when they arrived at their new home, they discovered it was in a minefield.
MAG has been in the country for some 17 years and our work is currently funded there by the German Federal Foreign Office, the US Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, Irish Aid, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UK Government.
Today, most of MAG’s operations are in agriculturally rich Central and Eastern Equatoria, where MAG has just received permission to resume clearance along the previously inaccessible Juba-Nimule highway.
The route is a priority because high levels of contamination restrict access to a region with huge agricultural potential and because the highway is the main arterial route connecting South Sudan’s capital, Juba, to Uganda. Refugees and internally displaced people are also returning to the area to find safety from the flooding in the north.
Of all the countries where we work, South Sudan is one of the most difficult. The security situation, the nature of the terrain and the increasingly unpredictable climate combine to make landmine clearance expensive and tough work.
Nevertheless, more than 307,000 people – women, girls, boys and men in local communities, refugees and IDPs – have directly benefitted from MAG’s land clearance while over 148,000 members of at-risk communities have received live-saving risk education.
Continuing such progress depends on the support of donors in what is an increasingly competitive humanitarian ‘marketplace’. It was particularly shocking, however, when the UK Government – which had funded our work in South Sudan almost every year since independence in 2011 – announced in October that it was withdrawing its support for our programme there.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has since announced that she is reviewing this decision, which was taken by her predecessor, and we expect to hear the outcome of that review in early 2022.
When one speaks to those who live in areas where the danger of landmines is ever present, it becomes instantly apparent just how important continued support is. Our data tells us that since 2018, funding from the UK’s Global Mine Action Programme has enabled MAG to clear almost 1.8 million square metres of land in South Sudan, directly benefitting 4,564 people and indirectly benefitting 17,725 people.
This is work which enables access to basic services such as education and health, and natural resources, including water and land. It means farmers can farm and cattle herders can migrate without fear of death and injury. It reduces reliance on aid and represents Britain’s soft power at its most tangible.