One year ago, a peaceful referendum created the Republic of South Sudan after decades of civil war in which more than 2 million people were murdered.
In the first year of this young nation’s life, the troubles haven’t stopped coming.
More than 500,000 people are believed to have been displaced by continued fighting along the border with northern Sudan and in contested areas such as South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The international community, which rallied around the referendum that delivered South Sudan’s independence, has too often been silent or distracted by more apparently urgent matters. But the birth of the nation is just the beginning.
I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds of people one year ago today standing patiently in line before sunrise for the privilege to vote.
I was traveling on assignment for Newsweek with George Clooney, activist John Prendergast and celebrated war photographer Lynsey Addario. It was an eye-opening trip in every respect.
We flew to the contested state of Abyei on a day in which more than 100 people were killed a few miles away in a clash between the Ngok Dinka tribe and the nomadic Misseriya tribes who came down from the north. We visited refugee camps where families huddled with their possessions in fields, hoping for the chance to vote for freedom. And on Election Day, 99 percent of the southern population voted for independence. It was a miracle in a country accustomed to the worst occurring. Joy emanated from the streets of Juba.
The winds of freedom spread quickly across Africa. It was not entirely a coincidence that only weeks later the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and spread to Libya and Egypt. Al Jazeera had carried images from South Sudan across the continent, causing people to question the permanent rule of their oppressors. But while the world turned its eyes to the Arab Spring it was too easy to forget the people of South Sudan, reestablishing a pattern than the Islamist government in Khartoum led by indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir had learned to exploit.
The world belatedly confronted the genocide in Darfur, which led to Bashir’s indictment by the international criminal court. Tribal conflicts were used as proxy wars, militias unleashed and civilians targeted from the air and on the ground. Similar tactics have been used throughout the past year, both in Abyei and throughout contested states still under the control of the North.
What’s different is that we now have evidence courtesy of the Satellite Sentinel Project, envisioned by Clooney as “the anti-genocide paparazzi” and executed by the Enough Project, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and DigitalGlobe. It’s a revolutionary use of technology in our globalized age and it’s made it much more difficult for nations to get away with murder inside their own borders.
Satellite Sentinel has offered indelible digital evidence of attacks in Abyei, Blue Nile, Darfur, and South Kordofan. Villages that once stood were burnt to the ground, verifying refugees’ stories as they stream into the South. On the eve of the first anniversary, the U.N. refugee chief warned that South Sudan stands in danger of becoming a “huge humanitarian crisis” without the international community’s support.
In the Republic of South Sudan we have a fragile story of hope—an ally of the United States whose official language is now English. Under the Bush administration, the United States was instrumental in brokering the peace that helped the South achieve its independence and the Obama administration has followed through on the president’s early commitment to the country as a junior senator from Illinois. Under the leadership of John Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has remained focused on South Sudan even as attention has drifted elsewhere. We have an interest as well as a moral obligation in seeing the Republic of South Sudan emerge as a successful independent state.
There are, of course, no shortage of challenges—but even without the recent conflicts, it would always have been an uphill climb requiring sustained commitment. As South Sudan President Salva Kiir said in his inaugural address this past July, “All the indexes of human welfare put us at the bottom of all humanity…all citizens of this nation must, therefore, fully dedicate their energies and resources to the construction of a vibrant economy.” Interested citizens of the world can help the effort.
In a year-end summation of the struggles still facing Sudan, John Prendergast’s Enough Project called for increased “financial and logistical support for cross-border humanitarian aid operations” as well as the enforcement of the U.N. ban on offensive flights over Darfur, extended to Abyei and South Kordofan. The Republic of South Sudan needs smart development aid as well as continued mediation with the government of Sudan.
Anniversaries are a time for remembrance and recommitment. One year after the referendum that peacefully created the Republic of South Sudan, the international community that helped give birth to this new nation must show that it is capable of sustained commitment, even when the television cameras go elsewhere. The need does not end overnight, and we must stand with our friends, especially when idealism collides with realism. In South Sudan, we have seen hope triumph over hate. Work is required to turn that hope into a sustainable success.