The world has witnessed the birth of its newest country. It is fascinating to note that on July 9, a new land and a new people came into existence. The South Sudanese are finally able to say, officially, what they have felt throughout decades of civil war: that they are their own people on their own land -- the Republic of South Sudan.
With the eyes of the world focused on Libya and Syria, the human suffering in Sudan goes largely unnoticed. The country as a whole was one of the poorest places on earth, but the southern half was responsible for the most dramatic figures. Three out of four of the population in the north can read and write, compared to one out of three in the south. In health care, the statistics aren't better: 85 percent of one-year-olds in the north are immunized against measles; in the south it is barely 20 percent. Almost 40 percent of the northern population have access to improved sanitation facilities; in the south this is just 6 percent. And the list goes on.
However shocking the numbers, without hearing about the humanitarian implications, they are just that: numbers. My aim in South Sudan was to turn the statistics into stories, to give the numbers a face. Seeing extreme poverty is not something you ever get used to. All the books in the world cannot prepare you for human suffering right in front of your eyes: A farmer working his land on crutches because he lost one leg when he stepped on a landmine. A woman who had a miscarriage after her violent husband repeatedly kicked her in the belly. A young boy affected by river blindness crying in silence because he cannot go to school. An old, fragile lady living under a tree in a leper colony.
Spending time with some of the poorest people in South Sudan has made me realize how enormous the task ahead really is. 'Starting from scratch' has never applied more to a new country. Its first-ever government consists of former armed rebels whose guerrilla practices most likely won't have adequately prepared them for life as a democratic politician. The only major source of income -- oil -- is at the same time a source for more conflict, as the south is dependent on the north for its pipelines and distribution.
In a country the size of the United Kingdom and Germany combined, there are only 25 miles of paved road, mainly in the Capital, Juba. Many places have no access to clean drinking water. There is no public health care and very little education. Even though the climate is good for agriculture, South Sudan relies on neighboring countries for all its food. There is no industry -- other than a bottled water factory and a brewery owned by South Africans -- and there are no rights for some of the country's most vulnerable, including people with disabilities and victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The recent fighting in the disputed oil-rich border
areas is alarming and the human suffering remains huge. Experts are talking of a "pre-failed state": a country that is collapsed before it has even come into existence. Adding up the figures, you can see their argument. Yet I find it hard to ignore the hope I have read in so many South Sudanese eyes. After half a century of war and destruction, they are so hungry for peace and development. They are so eager to make it work, for themselves and for future generations.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees are returning to South Sudan. Some fled the civil war with the north; others have been on the run to escape tribal conflict within the south. They have come from different states and different countries, back to the homeland they left in fear. I spoke to many returnees and others who the international aid community professionally labeled "IDP," or "Internally Displaced Person." For the record, they might be an IDP in an LDC [Least Developed Country] lacking progress in all the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]. For me, they were simply people whose stories deserved and needed to be told.
I interviewed South Sudanese both inside the country and out. In January, people who lived in refugee camps as far away as Uganda and Kenya traveled all the way back to vote in the referendum on independence. Their stories of hope and perseverance -- like those of so many others in South Sudan -- were inspirational.