Last month, the U.N. released a report outlining a pattern of truly horrific atrocities committed against civilians in South Sudan. The human rights investigation found incidents of mass rape, murder and torture. Millions have been displaced by ethnic violence, and the conflict has devastated the nation’s food production abilities.
Since 2013, the country has been embroiled in violence when two top officials from different ethnic groups began fighting for control of the young nation. Though a recent peace agreement between the two sides has offered some hope for the nation, there are still reports of on-going violence. And, in a nation where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 18, the lives of millions of children are still at risk.
We recently spoke with Jessica Bousquette, World Vision’s policy advisor for child protection, about the situation in South Sudan, the hope for peace and how the average American can help.
Recently, a U.N. report outlined some of the atrocities committed against civilians. Is the violence still prevalent?
We have seen all sides of the conflict commit crimes that are against civilians. We’ve seen the number of children recruited by armed groups on both sides go up by about 75% since this time last year, and it really has just continued to escalate.
We do have a lot of concerns about the way that that impacts children and their ability to access education, and really live in an environment where they’re free from the fear of violence against themselves and against their communities.
Recently, a peace agreement was signed. Was that basically a meaningless resolution?
No, I don’t think it’s meaningless. I was actually in south Sudan in August of 2015 when the peace agreement was signed between both parties. And while the peace agreement definitely is a sign of hope for South Sudan—it’s a step forward toward peace—we still have seen violence in certain parts of the country and people unable to access humanitarian aid.
So the task isn’t complete, but we’re moving in the right direction. There is hope that for the world’s youngest country, they’ll be able to return to peace.
There are about 1.7 million people internally displaced out of 11.6 million in South Sudan. More than 900,000 of them are children. I’ve been to South Sudan twice in the last year and although we are very concerned, we are still hopeful.
So the peace agreement basically says that the two sides have agreed to end the violence over the seizure of power?
Yes, they’ve agreed to a transitional government.
They’ve agreed to a lot of things that they will implement over the course of the next six months to a year, and they are moving along that process. What we haven’t seen is an end to violence yet.
Recent reports about the violence in South Sudan are extremely concerning. As a child-focused organization we’re really concerned about the impact that this is all having on children.
Are there ways for people to become politically involved to advocate on behalf of peace and the people of South Sudan?
As Americans, we always have the opportunity to use our voices on behalf of the most vulnerable in the world. The humanitarian response plan, which is set up by the United Nations and the non-profits who are working in South Sudan, right now is only 9% funded. We are looking at a rainy season starting in a couple of months, and about half of South Sudanese are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Delays in getting that funding out are deadly delays for children in South Sudan.
People can call their member of Congress, and they can say, “I want the US to support the South Sudanese people. And one of the ways we can do that is by insuring that we have strong and robust funding to our International Disaster Assistance and our Migration and Refugee Assistance accounts, when the U.S. is creating their budget.”
Because that’s the funding that is going to go to the South Sudanese people as they’re dealing with chronic hunger and lack of livelihoods, opportunities and education.
For people that want to give themselves and support organizations that are there on the ground making an impact in the lives of the victims of this violence, can you talk about some of the programs that are happening and how people can support specific causes?
We have more information at WorldVision.org on some of the programs that we’re doing in South Sudan. We are providing food assistance to children and their families.
Last year we provided nearly 140,000 displaced people with food assistance, and we’re also working on ensuring that children have access to nutritious food, preventing malnutrition with young mothers and their children. We’re also working on ensuring that children have access to schools.
You were in the country last year. Were you hopeful about the future of South Sudan?
I was hopeful. I was hopeful, because I remembered a young girl that I had met the previous time I had been in South Sudan. I had been there twice in a year, about 10 months apart, and the first time I was there I had a chance to sit down with children and ask them about the risks that they faced as a result of being displaced.
I met this young girl named Elizabeth, and she was living on a U.N. base in Juba, the capital. She was 17-years-old at the time and was out of school, and was having to help around the house with her father. The rest of her family had already fled the country.
Elizabeth at the time was really quite frustrated because, she said, “People keep going back and forth to Ethiopia to talk about peace, and still there is no peace. And while the world watches and waits there is still no peace.”
She encapsulated this frustration and desire of a lot of the children we spoke with: That they couldn’t go home because there wasn’t peace. They couldn’t go to school because there wasn’t peace.
When I was there in August. and I was witnessing the beginnings of the peace agreements and the beginning of the hope for peace for people, I thought back to my meeting with Elizabeth, and thought, “Now there is at least something on paper that gets us towards peace, and gets us towards children being able to go home and back to school.”
In South Sudan, we have yet to see a generation of children who have not experienced violence in conflict. For the last several decades South Sudan has had to grapple with conflict, and so to have the opportunity for peace is a huge step in the right direction.