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As a Man-Made Famine Looms, Christmas Comes Early to South Sudan

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Posted on Aug 8, 2014

    Refugee family in the Yusuf Bathil camp in Maban County, Upper Nile. Photo by European Commission DG ECHO (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

Juba, South Sudan—The soft glow of the dancing white lights is a dead giveaway.  It’s Christmas in July at the U.S. Embassy compound.   Behind high walls topped with fierce-looking metal impediments meant to discourage climbers, there’s a party under way.

Close your eyes and you could be at a stateside summer barbeque or an office holiday party.  Even with them open, the local realities of dirt roads and dirty water, civil war, mass graves, and nightly shoot-to-kill curfews seem foreign. These walls, it turns out, are even higher than they look.

Out by the swimming pool and the well-stocked bar, every table is packed with people.  Slightly bleary-eyed men and sun-kissed women wear Santa hats and decorations in their hair.  One festive fellow is dressed as Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation complete with a white sweater, black dickey, and bright white loafers.  Another is straddling an inflatable killer whale that he’s borrowed from the collection of playthings around the pool and is using as improvised chair while he stuffs his face from an all-American smorgasbord.  We’re all eating well tonight.  Mac and cheese, barbequed ribs, beef tenderloin, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and for desert, peach cobbler.  The drinks are flowing, too: wine and whisky and fine Tusker beer.

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Yuletide songs drift out into the sultry night in this, the capital of the world’s newest nation.  “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime,” croons Paul McCartney. 

Just 15 minutes away, near the airport in an area known as Tongping, things aren’t quite so wonderful.  There’s no fried chicken, no ribs, no peach cobbler.  At Juba’s United Nations camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), they’re eating sorghum and a crude porridge made from a powdered blend of corn and soy beans provided by the United Nations’ World Food Program.  Children at the camp call it “the yellow food.”  “It’s no good,” one of them tells me, with a quick head shake for emphasis.

I mention to a few of the embassy revelers that I’m heading several hundred miles north to Malakal.  A couple of them assure me that, according to colleagues, it’s “not that bad.”  But while we’re chowing down, an emaciated young girl in Malakal clings to life.  This one-year-old arrived at the hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) at the U.N. camp there several days earlier, severely malnourished and weighing just 11 pounds.  It’s uncertain if she’ll survive.  One in 10 children who arrive at the hospital in her condition don’t.    

A Man-Made Famine

As John Kerry, then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it in 2012, the United States “helped midwife the birth” of South Sudan.  The choice of words may have been cringe-worthy, but hardly divorced from reality.  For more than 20 years, a bipartisan coalition in Washington and beyond championed rebel forces here.  As the new nation broke away from Sudan, after decades of bloody civil war, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance, and sent military instructors to train the country’s armed forces and advisers to mentor government officials. 

It would be Washington’s major nation-building effort in Africa, a new country destined to join Iraq and Afghanistan as a regional bulwark of democracy and a shining example of American know-how.  On South Sudan’s independence day, July 9, 2011, President Obama hailed the moment as a “time of hope” and pledged U.S. partnership to the new land, emphasizing security and development.  There’s precious little evidence of either of these at the U.N. camps and even less in vast areas of the countryside now teetering on the edge of a catastrophic famine.

Since a civil war broke out in December 2013, at least 10,000 South Sudanese have been killed, untold numbers of women and girls have been victims of sexual violence, and atrocities have been committed by all parties to the conflict.  As a result, in the eyes of the United Nations, in a world of roiling strife—civil wars, mass killings, hunger, and conflicts from Iraq to Gaza, Ukraine to Libya—South Sudan is, along with the Central African Republic and Syria, one of just three “L3 emergencies,” the world’s most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.  The country has also just displaced Somalia—for six years running the archetypal failed state—atop the Fund for Peace’s 178-nation list of the world’s most fragile nations. 


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