In 2012, as civil war loomed – and with just a quarter of the South Sudan’s population able to read and write – Awak Bior’s decision to found a bookshop may have seemed risky. But for Bior it was a necessity.
“Literacy rates are very low in South Sudan,” she says, sitting on a wooden bench at Leaves bookshop in the capital Juba. “It’s to create a way for people to see that reading is a pleasurable thing; it’s something that can give you some advantage personally and professionally.”
Bior had been a frequent traveller between South Sudan and the UK, where she grew up, with her bags stuffed full of books. Her own love of reading was nurtured by regular visits to her local library with her parents. Now, aided by a small but enthusiastic team, she runs South Sudan’s leading bookshop.
The country’s few other book stores mainly sell religious books or textbooks; Leaves’ wooden bookcases are lined with the latest novels and non-fiction from the UK, east Africa and elsewhere, while also promoting a culture of reading through public debates and book launches.
The small bookshop with big ambitions has already attracted devoted customers. Dhieu Williams, a radio presenter, is a regular visitor. He recently picked up a copy of Fidel Castro’s autobiography, My Life. “It’s not only me reading the books I buy, it’s my cousins and brothers as well,” he says.
Peter Biar is an even greater advocate for reading, a passion he traces back to stumbling across a quote by Cicero – “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Biar, like many young men in South Sudan, was a child soldier “educated in the struggle”. Now he treasures every book he owns.
Leaves has more male customers than female, a reflection of the fact that only 16% of women can read and write, and even fewer have the kind of income which allow them to buy books, which can cost over 100 South Sudanese pounds, around £13.
Speaking to a local radio station, he says that “now more than ever we need books. Self development is key to resolving the South Sudan crisis.” The fighting, largely carried out by young, illiterate soldiers, has also pushed South Sudanese citizens from every walk of life to consider what sort of state they wish to live in.
The rebel leader, Riek Machar, prominently displayed a copy of Why Nations Fail, by political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in his bush headquarters. Machar and other politicians have been calling for federalism, and there is increased public criticism about the political failures that led to war.
“We have more South Sudanese customers now than we did during the time of stability,” Leaves’ manager Riek says. “Maybe they are interested in knowing more about politics, and how they can live together.”
The government, led by Salva Kiir, is also being accused of clamping down on dissent, at one point indicating there should be no open public discussions of federalism. So far, Leaves’ public debates have not been affected.
Founder Bior says freedom of expression is vital for South Sudan’s future. “What we are trying to encourage is an environment where people can exchange ideas, debate and be able to come to solutions together. I think when you look at different countries that are successful, one of the things they have in common is that you can access information. If censorship starts to become more common in South Sudan, that would be a disaster, because it would hinder development and social improvement.”
Bior says the next goal is to move out of the current small premises into a bigger bookshop, to create a refuge for readers. “Most people do not read even if they want to read, because their houses are crowded, they don’t have private space.
“Electricity is another issue. In Juba in the evenings, children gather around security guard compounds just so they can read and study. We’d love to be able to fill that gap in providing a place for people to read, whether for pleasure or for study.”
Water bottle in hand and rucksack on back, his grey trousers rolled up to reveal spindly legs, 12-year-old Gatwech boarded the first flight of his life. His ear protectors dwarfed his head as he gazed wide-eyed through the window of the Russian-built UN helicopter that lifted into the sky, sweeping over lush plains and thick forests.
Gatwech crossed the invisible frontlines separating government and rebel forces in South Sudan’s civil war. Finally, the aircraft came in to land on a ringfenced field in the village of Akobo, deep in opposition territory, and the boy strained to look at the excited crowd waiting under trees. He was about to be reunited with his family for the first time after nine arduous months in a displacement camp.
His best friend beamed, his aunt sang and wept and spat as a blessing, and his uncle gave him a rather formal pat on the head. Gatwech was safe at last. But in the world’s newest and hungriest country, every gain is tentative and every haven fragile. Three days later, there was chaos outside the hospital in Akobo when a cattle thief was bound, chased and whipped by a lynch mob of soldiers, police and vigilantes, including rifle-toting children.
The febrile atmosphere is a sign that the rainy season is coming to an end in South Sudan, raising the prospect of renewed fighting. Aid is working here but diplomacy is not.
Famine has been staved off, at least for now, by the efforts of numerous agencies and the UN’s biggest ever humanitarian operation in one country. Yet bad-tempered peace talks between the warring parties have stalled, agreements have proved hollow and the international community has failed to apply the requisite pressure. The intransigence of two men, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, is seen by many here as dragging the country towards the abyss.
Thousands have been killed and nearly two million have fled their homes since their war broke out last December. Oxfam and other agencies have warned that an expected upsurge in violence could wipe out recent gains in food security and push the number of severely hungry people up by a million in the first three months of 2015. Describing it as a shift from crisis to catastrophe, they say parts of the country could slide into man-made famine early next year.
A dangerous life
Children, who make up half the population, suffer the most. When the war started, Gatwech – not his real name – ran for his life after government forces attacked the town where his close family was staying. He was carrying a pair of shoes. “I thought my parents were also running,” he recalled, speaking Nuer through an interpreter. “But when I reached the UN camp, they were not there and I thought maybe they were killed. I was very afraid because I heard a lot of gunshots and artillery.”
Nearly 100 000 people are crammed into UN compounds across the country for their own protection, often in inhumane and unsanitary conditions. Gatwech found himself sleeping on a mat on the floor. “I didn’t have anything to do. It was boring. The day was very long,” he said. The boy, who hopes to become a doctor one day, also witnessed attacks on the camp from government troops. “It was a dangerous life. I saw a lot of dead bodies.”
But months later came the news that Gatwech’s parents had been located in Akobo by a family tracing and reunification programme coordinated by Save the Children. It is long, complicated and logistically difficult work: at present 5 660 children have been registered as missing in South Sudan and only 393 reunited with their families. “It’s a needle in a haystack,” one aid worker said.
When Gatwech landed in Akobo last week, his friend Isaac was there to greet him in a crowd of villagers and wandering cows. The 13-year-old said: “I was very happy. I missed him. We weren’t optimistic because we thought in the long run the only way he would come is when there is peace in South Sudan.”
And peace remains a distant prospect, with Kiir and Machar seemingly hellbent on a military solution. Kiir told the UN general assembly last month: “The conflict in South Sudan is purely a political struggle for power, not an ethnic conflict as reported.” Yet violence has broken out along ethnic lines in many parts of the country, pitting forces loyal to Kiir, a Dinka, against those of his former deputy Machar, a Nuer.
Economic self-interest is also fuelling the conflict. A report last month by the Enough Project noted: “The country’s competing privileged elites are sacrificing their own people’s lives to secure the political and economic benefits – including massive state-corroding corruption – derived from control of the state.”
Political and military leaders maintain “lavish homes” in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa and Australia, the report continued. “Families of the leaders of South Sudan’s warring parties are living in neighbouring countries and their children are attending the finest schools available. Meanwhile, the education system back in South Sudan has collapsed.”
The Enough Project said the South Sudanese government had received $38-million in weapons and ammunition from China since the start of the civil war, while there is evidence that opposition forces may have been resupplied with ammunition by Sudan, from which the country gained independence in 2011.
Akobo, a remote cluster of tukuls, or mud huts, in Jonglei state, near the Ethiopian border, was the scene of an infamous massacre in 1983. Last December young Nuer men stormed a UN base looking for Dinka civilians sheltering inside and killed two Indian peacekeepers. Since then the village has been overwhelmed by displaced people, putting pressure on food, schools and hospitals, and driving market prices up. Mobile phone networks have been cut off by the government.
Akobo is now firmly controlled by the rebels, who include large chunks of what used to be the national army, and in the central market there is a sense of something approaching normality. But few expect it to last. Koang Rambang, the county commissioner, predicts famine and even genocide. “Akobo is the first town the government are targeting because they consider it a supply route and escape route for the community,” he said. “We’ll do our best to make sure citizens are aware of the threats they are facing.”
Talking into a satellite phone and flanked by soldiers wielding guns, Rambang is now firmly in Machar’s camp because, he says, it is the pragmatic choice. “People call us the rebels but this is the resistance movement to the onslaught, the killings by Salva Kiir. I have no interest in rebelling to go running in the bush for no reason. But if someone wants to kill me because I am Nuer, then I have no choice. I am ready for peaceful solution but if people choose to go forcefully, I am also ready for that.”
In predominantly Dinka areas of South Sudan there are similar accounts of brutal treatment at the hands of the Nuers and hostility towards Machar. In Akobo, it is the Dinka president who is deeply unpopular. Rambang said, “The communities have no trust in Salva Kiir’s leadership. The solution to this crisis is to have Kiir step aside and let some change happen. The other party might want Machar to step aside. I’m sure Machar will compromise because I have spoken to him several times.”
The war has caused a surge in child brides, according to Rambang, with families pushing girls as young as 13 into marriage so they will receive a cattle dowry. But the biggest crisis in Akobo, he says, is food security. Harvests, markets and trade routes have been disrupted. One in three children are acutely malnourished, with consequences including increased vulnerability to malaria and failure to attend school.
The village borders a river where children splash and play and climb trees, exotic blue-and-red birds swoop low and lone canoeists gently push through a surface almost as smooth as glass. It takes 45 minutes on a motorboat to reach the village of Dangjok. Here soldiers stand guard, bullet belts around their shoulders, the Nuer initiation pattern of six parallel horizontal scars on their foreheads. The local chief works at a desk in a gloomy corrugated shed where rocket-propelled grenades litter the floor and bats hang from the wood beams.
Save the Children and a local NGO, Nile Hope, are running an outpatient therapeutic centre where, in a modest building of mud walls and thatched roof, malnourished babies are registered, weighed, measured for height and arm circumference and given the peanut-based paste Plumpy’Nut or, in severe cases, referred to hospital for urgent treatment. Right now the preventative measure appears to be working, with hospital admissions down to single figures.
Nellie James, assistant nutrition coordinator at Nile Hope, said some mothers carry their children for two hours to be here. “None of them give up. These mothers are very strong and very determined. Here in Akobo people value children more. A mother can go two days without eating but the child has to eat.”
Among more than 30 mothers waiting their turn last week was Nyanhial Ruot, who fled the city of Malakal nine months ago. She was on the main street when government tanks opened fire. “Children were crying,” she recalled, wearing a rainbow coloured dress, sandals and yellow headscarf patterned with a red rose. “I’ve seen people dying in front of me. Most of them were mothers and children who were not able to run. We turned left and that’s why we’re alive. Those running in front were killed.”
Ruot, 25, and her family trekked for two months to reach Dangjok, but now her four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son are suffering vomiting and diarrhoea. “I’m worried about my children’s lives,” she said. “Before the crisis we got medicine in the market. Now there is none or the prices have gone up.”
A small paracetamol tablet has risen in price from 10 to 25 South Sudanese pounds (roughly $3 to $8), she complained. Food is also scarce. “We have planted some sorghum and maize but there is not enough for the children. In the dry season we collect fruits, grasses and leaves.”
That Ruot and hundreds of mothers like her are receiving help, and that South Sudan is not yet officially in famine is a notable victory for the aid agencies. Ultimately, however, it is only a sticking plaster. One in seven people are still at food crisis or emergency level and 50 000 children could die by the end of the year. All the good work could be undone if Kiir and Machar fail to make peace, or are not compelled to do so. The Enough Project has called for punitive measures including seizing the homes, bank accounts and shell companies of anyone undermining the peace process.
Tariq Reibl, head of Oxfam’s programme in South Sudan, said: “If famine comes to South Sudan it will come through the barrel of a gun. This is a man-made crisis, not one caused by the vagaries of the weather, and though humanitarian aid is vital it cannot fix a political problem.
“The international community is much better at saving lives than it is at helping solve the political problems that put lives in peril. Nine months of the softly-softly approach to peace negotiations has failed. If the international community really wants to avert a famine then it has to make bold diplomatic efforts to bring both sides to end the fighting.”
Julie Francis’s self-imposed curfew starts when the sun sets. The widowed mother of four has been living at the UN base outside Malakal since December, one of more than 17 000 people who have fled there to escape episodic fighting in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State capital. But the overcrowded camp is not without its own dangers, especially for women and girls.
Francis can hear drunken teenagers hound women as they make their way around the site’s darkened paths. She has seen the holes men have cut through the tarpaulin walls of the showers so they can peep and leer at women. She has comforted rape survivors.
“It is too much,” she said. “They attack us at the place of the toilets or at night where we collect water.” There were 28 reported cases of sexual assault in the Malakal camp between January and June of this year, according to an assessment released by the inter-agency Global Protection Cluster late last month. But aid workers acknowledge the vast majority of attacks probably go unreported.
So Francis has decided it is best to push a bedframe in front of the entrance to her tent as soon as it gets dark. If she or her daughters need to go to the bathroom, they just use a bag.
But she doesn’t think it is fair. “People should take this seriously,” she said. “They should be serious to help. There are still people who need to know that it is not right to rape.”
Where, she wants to know, are the floodlights that could roust deter men hiding near the latrines, or the regular UN Police (UNPOL) patrols to protect women who want to visit their friends at night or go to the bathroom? Why, she asked, does it seem like she is the only one taking steps to make sure she does not get raped?
The problem is not in Malakal alone. Since fighting broke out in South Sudan in mid-December, nearly 100 000 people have crowded into 10 UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases across the eastern half of the country. They have been dubbed “Protection of Civilian” or PoC, sites. Though there are no official statistics, humanitarian groups say sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) – including rape, but also beating, harassment and domestic violence – exists in varying degrees at all of the larger camps, as does a growing resentment among women and girls that more is not being done to protect them.
“Of course there’s increasing frustration,” said Nana Ndeda, the advocacy and policy manager for Care International. She has been talking to women living in the camps about their experiences since the conflict started. “They’re getting very frustrated by the fact that UNMISS is not able to provide the kind of security that they would want provided.”
What is most galling, she said, is that the strategies for what should be done already exist. The 87-page Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings, compiled by a committee of UN agencies and humanitarian groups, offers detailed recommendations, including lighting communal areas, creating safe spaces where women can confidentially seek help and consistently soliciting the input of women and girls on how to improve the situation.
But in the early days of the conflict, with unprecedented numbers of civilians seeking shelter at the UN bases and scores of humanitarian workers evacuating, UNMISS employees were scrambling just to provide basic services.
“We had many more people than we could house and we needed to find a way to still be able to operate the base, as well,” said Derk Segaar, who heads UNMISS’s protection team. In the early days of the conflict, as people flooded into bases across the country, “it was a matter of trying to get them in a sustainable space that would allow just enough space for them to be there.”
Thousands of people are still living in shelters hastily constructed in the early days of the fighting, when issues like SGBV took a backseat to rescuing as many people as possible.
Tidial Chany is a community leader elected to represent one of the original parts of the Malakal camp, known as PoC 2. He works closely with UNPOL on security concerns in his area, but said it is nearly impossible to monitor all of the boggy, unlit alleys and has ultimately concluded, “It’s no good for security within the PoC.”
Aware of the problems, UNMISS started working to secure additional land and to construct more strategically planned sites almost from the beginning of the conflict, Segaar said, but their efforts were slowed by both bureaucracy and continued fighting.
New camps finally opened in Juba and Malakal in June. Within the new spaces, attention has been paid to the guidelines: women’s latrines are stationed near well-lit arteries and are separated from the men’s, for instance. Another site is slated to open in the Jonglei State capital, Bor, later this month.
“It’s not a matter of a few weeks or a few months and people will all be happy to go home,” Segaar said. “That’s why we built these bases. We need to be able to keep people safe and healthy for potentially a much longer period of time.”
In 2010, Mick Ebeling, founder of a company called Not Impossible, spearheaded the creation of the Eyewriter, eye-tracking glasses using open-source software, to allow paralysed people to draw and communicate using only their eyes.
Then, in November last year, Not Impossible printed a prosthetic hand that allowed a teenager to feed himself for the first time in two years. But that was just the beginning.
Late last year, he set up the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. The first “patient” was a boy called Daniel, who had had both his arms blown off at the age of 14.
The boy, now 16, was living in a 70 000-person refugee camp in Yida, South Sudan. On November 11, he received the first version of a prosthetic left arm. It was named after the boy himself: the Daniel Hand. And it enabled him to feed himself for the first time in two years. According to Ebeling, he also ate chocolate for the first time.
With the assistance of an American doctor, Tom Catena, the team then set about teaching others to print and assemble 3D prostheses. By the time the Americans returned home, local trainees had printed and fitted another two arms, underlining the project’s lasting benefit beyond the presence of the Not Impossible team.
Equally astonishingly, Project Daniel successfully unfolded in a region where fighting was escalating, and where the people taught to use the 3D printers had barely any knowledge of computers.
“We’re hopeful that other children and adults in other regions of Africa, as well as other continents, will utilise the power of this new technology for similar beginnings,” says Ebeling. “We believe Daniel’s story will ignite a global campaign. The sharing of the prostheses’ specifications, which Not Impossible will provide free and open source, will enable any person in need, anywhere on the planet, to use technology for its best purpose: restoring humanity.”
The Daniel Hand was originally designed at the Not Impossible headquarters in Venice, California (United States), using crowdsourcing to pull in “a dream team of innovators”. Prominent among them was the South African inventor of the Robohand, Richard Van As, a master carpenter from Johannesburg.
The team also included an Australian neuroscientist and a 3D printing company owner. The project was supported by precision engineering company Precipart and by chipmaker Intel, which included Ebeling in its own events at CES this week.
“We are on the precipice of a can-do maker community that is reaching critical mass,” says Elliot V Kotek, Not Impossible’s content chief and co-founder. “There is no shortage of knowledge, and we are linking the brightest technical minds and creative problem-solvers around the globe. Project Daniel is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”
While Project Daniel focuses on medical benefits of 3D printing, the project proves that the ultimate benefit the technology can bring is limited only by the human imagination. – Gadget.co.za
Arthur Goldstuck is the editor-in-chief of Gadget. Connect with him on Twitter.
A Human Rights Watch report has called on South Sudan to increase efforts to protect girls from widespread child marriage in the country. The practice “exacerbates pronounced gender gaps in school enrollment, contributes to soaring maternal mortality rates, and violates the right of girls to be free from violence, and to marry only when they are able and willing to give their free consent.” According to government statistics, close to 48% of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 are married, some as young as age 12.