The true story in South Sudan

By Ellen Ratner

I arrived on Saturday from South Sudan. People had warned me not to go because of a report by the United Nations regarding the strife and instability in the country. Although the report was recent, the fighting was not. My family was worried, but they should been more worried when I was in South Sudan a year ago – not right now.

In March, a press release about the report said the “U.N. Human Rights Office describes in searing detail a multitude of horrendous human rights violations, including a government-operated ‘scorched earth policy,’ and deliberate targeting of civilians for killing, rape and pillage.”

As I arrived on Saturday, the Washington Post had published an editorial titled, “Enough in South Sudan,” with this subheadline: “Continued atrocities against civilians demand an arms embargo.” It uses as its basis much of the United Nations report cited above.

I do not have rose-colored glasses. I am not saying all is great and rosy in South Sudan. The editorial takes after the two sides, President Kiir and now (and again) Vice President Reik Machar. The Post correctly states that many people have fled their homes and have taken refuge in United Nations compounds as well as going to what used to be termed “the north” and what is now known as Sudan. There is no dispute that people have left their homes and villages due to the past internal conflicts within South Sudan. There is no dispute that there is now hunger in a large part of South Sudan and that as the cultivation season begins and the “hunger gap” increases that there will be more hunger. Those are facts, and anyone in South Sudan will agree.

However, the current hunger and fleeing to the North has little to do with the government of South Sudan. It has everything to do with Sudan, controlled by “President” Omar el Bashir, a questionably “elected” man who is wanted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (two years of indictments, 2009 and 2010). One of South Sudan’s newspapers, The Dawn, aptly named President Bashir’s policy of closing off the border with Sudan as responsible for much of the movement to the North and for the hunger and in South Sudan.

On Thursday, in what was Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where many people have left and the prices of food in the market have gone beyond the reach of local people, I inquired why. It has little or nothing to do with the civil conflict in South Sudan and everything to do with President Bashir’s closing of the border. Where Arab traders from the North (with whom I met) have tried to reduce hunger, it has become impossible because of the border being closed.

Our small nonprofit, GEMS Development Foundation (goats, education, medicine, sustainability – previously known as Goats for the Old Goat), has a self-help project where people with polio make their own wheelchairs. Although the prices rose for the wheelchairs during the last few years, we were always able to get parts so polio survivors could make these wheelchairs. Now, because the border has been closed, we can’t get parts and polio survivors can’t make wheelchairs, leaving many to crawl on the ground.

The next and obvious question: Why has President Bashir from Sudan closed the border? South Sudan is land-locked. Trucks full of supplies have to come in from roads, many of them only dirt, from Kenya and Uganda. The only other route is from Sudan and the Port of Sudan, which has access to water via the Red Sea.

There is much speculation, but most people in South Sudan with knowledge say President Bashir wants to take advantage of any conflict in South Sudan and wants to literally starve South Sudan so he can reincorporate it into Sudan. This is a massive tactic, and the Washington Post’s editorial misses the point and the blame. People are fleeing via smugglers to parts of Sudan because Bashir is cutting off the ability to purchase food at reasonable prices by closing the border.

It is easy to focus on the internal conflict within the political parts of South Sudan, but the blame lies elsewhere, to the north in Sudan and its leadership. It is not just a wishful territorial grab by President Bashir. It is also because he wants his hands on the oil that is in South Sudan. The Washington Post has misplaced the blame for hunger and why people are fleeing to the Sudan for food. This has everything to do with President Bashir and his power grab and little to do with past internal conflicts.

Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact [email protected].

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