GUMURUK, South Sudan, Jul 13 2021 (IPS) – With her bare hands, Roda clears debris and forages scraps from her wrecked teashop after attackers scorched Gumuruk, a town in the Greater Jonglei region where conflict frequently disrupts daily life and stifles progress.
The 36-year-old mother of six is just one of countless South Sudanese stuck in a tiring cycle of destruction and rebuilding.
Roda’s teashop is — or was — situated in the heart of a local market in Gumuruk. Made of a few simple metal sheets held together on the unpaved ground, before the attack it was a place where locals could enjoy each other’s company over the steady supply of sweet, warming tea.
But all of that was destroyed when violence broke out and the market was stripped down with Roda’s teashop in tow. In one day, she lost all the investment that she had worked so hard to build over a year.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the world’s newest nation. Born of decades of struggle and a persistent desire for self-determination, South Sudan has had its share of ups and downs in the first decade of its existence. WFP and its UN partners have been on the ground in South Sudan since the beginning, helping its people achieve their dream of developing their nation.
More than 7 million people — 60 percent of the population — are uncertain of where their next meal will come from due to intensified conflict, the effects of climate change and, more recently, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Insecurity, ambushes and violent raids are also hindering the delivery of humanitarian assistance and endangering lives. In Gumuruk alone, some 550 metric tons of food, enough to feed 33,000 food-insecure people for one month, were looted or destroyed. The food included cereals, pulses, cooking oil and nutrition supplements for the treatment and prevention of malnutrition in children and women.
The World Food Programme (WFP) and other UN agencies have been on the ground in South Sudan since it first gained its independence on 9 July 2011, providing millions of people with a lifeline of food and nutritional assistance, and helping them achieve the dream of developing their nation.
In many parts of South Sudan, a country of 12.2 million people, women, men and children have benefited from food security projects as well as WFP’s long-term programmes such Food Assistance For Assets and an extensive school feeding initiative.
This year, WFP plans to reach 5.3 million people with food assistance and over 730,000 people with livelihoods projects which build resilience against shocks and promote self-reliance.
Despite the progress that has been made through these and other ongoing projects, fighting among communities in the country has eroded many of the benefits experienced by South Sudanese, resulting in a host of missed opportunities for the young country.
Roda’s teashop is one example. After working hard to make a living for herself and her children, she is heartbroken by the loss of all her efforts and income.
“There is nothing to be happy about,” she says, tearfully. “Violence destroyed my hometown, my shop. And now — there is no water.”
Before the attack in Gumuruk in May, WFP was making steady progress reaching the most food insecure families in the town with life-saving food and nutrition. Roda and her community relied on a local water source to cook food for themselves and their families.
“My children and I would not be able to survive without this [WFP] food,” she says.
Then raiders destroyed the water treatment tank in the area, leaving Roda, her family and hundreds of others without access to clean water for cooking or sanitation. The nearest water point is a half day’s journey on foot, and she can only carry so much. Her husband is elderly and unwell.
On some days Roda cannot carry enough water back home to cook for herself and her family. The day I met her, she had gone without eating for the entire day, choosing to ration the little water she had that day to cook for and feed her children.
This is an example of how conflict between communities has wasted resources and opportunities for the people of South Sudan. That’s 10 years of wasted opportunities to grow, develop and build happy and fulfilling lives. It leaves people like Roda, who are working hard to build their lives, stuck in a pattern of one step forward, two steps back.
Longevity is a luxury in places like Gumuruk. The ability to imagine and plan for one’s future is built on stable foundations not only of hard work but also hope and confidence that are nurtured by small, incremental successes.
The cycle of building and destruction makes life for Roda and many others in South Sudan a Sisyphean task that derails their dream for a brighter tomorrow. No matter how much hard work she puts in, instead of being able to gradually build on her achievements, she finds they are back to square one.
“If only the fighting would stop, then maybe a better future will come,” says Roda.
Little can be done to change the past but experience can be used to ensure that the future is brighter for people like Roda and for all South Sudanese people. But while we cannot go back and change the last decade, we can make sure the next one is better for Roda and her people.
As she continues to clear the debris from her store, every now and again, Roda’s dirt-stained hand finds a small pot or a spoon buried underneath heaps of ash.
“I can still use this,” Roda says to me while slipping the blackened scrap in a bag she carries at her side. Despite its paltry contents, her resolve grows stronger.
Lives can be saved and improved in South Sudan if sufficient funding is made available. For the next six months, WFP requires US$ 170 million to continue delivering food assistance to the most vulnerable and promoting livelihoods projects which encourage self-reliance.
Marwa Awad, head of communications in WFP South Sudan, worked previously in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.