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South Sudan's dreams slipping away already

The nation's creation last year was greeted with hope and celebration. Now residents see only corruption and an uncaring government.

March 22, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A man collects water from the Nile in Juba, South Sudan. Many people arriving from the north set up temporary shelter along the riverbank.
A man collects water from the Nile in Juba, South Sudan. Many people arriving… (Adriane Ohanesian / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Juba, South Sudan —  

With a gnarled hand, the elderly widow picks up a rock and taps it with another rock until it shatters. Then she tosses the pebbles into a small pile.

The tap-tap of stone on stone echoes like drips in a cave as women pound stones to pebbles in the blasting heat of Rock City, on the outskirts of Juba, capital of the new nation of South Sudan.

Davidka Clement made the long trek to Juba from her village a few years ago. She had heard that South Sudan, which fought for decades for independence from Sudan, would soon become an independent country with its own leaders, who would care about people like her.

The country became a reality in July, to momentous celebration, but it changed nothing for Clement or the other pebble women of Rock City. She sits in her small square of shade, beneath a shelter of sticks and plastic, pounding stones.

It takes 10 days to make a pile about two feet high, but there are many pebble sellers in Rock City and few buyers. Much of the business goes to a nearby quarry, where people buy gravel by the truckload for road building and construction.

Clement makes about $1 a day.

"There's nothing," she says. "What do you do? You just come and do your work. I go home, my body is in pain. I cry, but I come back."

Freedom wasn't supposed to be like this.

Long marginalized by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the southern part of the country was one of the most destitute, least developed places on Earth, with just a few miles of paved road. But last year's peaceful secession sparked a surge of hope among South Sudanese. With their own flag, their own government, their own oil, they would build a decent country.

Instead, the government has taken the well-worn path of many other rebels-turned-leaders. Corruption and nepotism are pervasive, public services are negligible, and on a recent visit to Juba there was more evidence of demolition than of reconstruction.

In January, the government suspended oil production, which accounts for 98% of its revenue, in a dispute with Sudan over transit fees for shipping crude through the north by pipeline.

The joy of independence is a distant memory. Austerity is the new refrain.

Clement reaches for another rock.

"I left everything and I came to the city because they were saying: 'Government, government, government. They want to help the poor people who are suffering.' That's why I came here," says Clement, who wears a ragged, grimy dress. "But the government doesn't want to help."

Juba has about 370,000 inhabitants and the exhilarating atmosphere of a place in a hurry, with hotels made of shipping containers and thrown-together humanitarian compounds on nearly every street. New roads unfurl across the landscape like runaway rolls of paper.

Hotels are full of chattering oil analysts, government advisors, workers for charitable organizations and freelance journalists, waiting expectantly, like birth attendants in a delivery room, to see whether the newborn will live or die.

The bustle cannot soften the bleakness of the place. Red dust makes every surface look rusty. Plastic water bottles lie heaped in gutters. Tick-infested dogs poke their noses into garbage piles, and women cook pancake-like breads over charcoal fires on the roadside.

On every corner, motorcycle taxis sit waiting for fares. The sickening thunk of a car colliding with a motorcycle is heard several times a day.

The promise of a better life in Juba, made possible by South Sudan's oil money, drew not only Clement, but thousands of Kenyans and Ugandans. They work as drivers, cooks and waiters, serving beers and burgers to the army of aid workers who keep the country's hospitals and schools running.

Even in the capital, the main hospital is scruffy and grim; in rural areas, schools and medical facilities are scarce.

With the government slow to open clinics in Juba, private ones have sprung up. On the edge of Rock City, a half-finished clinic looms above the street, with patients lined up on benches, waiting to see a doctor.

The prices in South Sudanese pounds are scrawled on the wall: Admission: £20 ($6.25) Consultation: £15 ($4.60) Blood sugar: £10 ($3.12) Ultrasound: £40 ($12.48).

Last year, Hassan Awule, head of the clinic, was full of optimism: He would build an operating theater, a pediatrics unit and a morgue. Today, his ambitions have shrunk and the second story of the clinic is just a shell.

He was realistic enough not to expect help from the government or aid agencies, but he believed that with oil, South Sudan's economy would grow enough to employ people who could afford to use private clinics.

"Even this month, there's a danger this business could collapse," Awule says. He has just held a crisis meeting with his senior staff members to decide how to save it: Raise prices, lay off some of the 48 personnel or slash salaries.

"There's not enough money coming in to pay the staff," Awule says.

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