Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Independence Day

The Flag of South Sudan : Red is for Blood

Today, July 9th 2013 is Independence Day in South Sudan, now 2 years old. It is a public holiday and apparently leaders from many African countries have arrived in Juba, the Capital, for celebrations. Here in Aweil, celebrations are apparently going to take place in Freedom Square, a large open space of gravel and dust at the edge of the main market area. Theres nothing special about Freedom square  - maybe in the future it will be upgraded with paving or flag poles or something but for now its just a wide space which I think was once an airstrip.  However, something extraordinary happened there last week during a football match – the sky darkened as a storm approached, huge drops of rain began to bounce off the gravel as a tropical  rain squall approached, and then in an instant a man was killed by a lightening strike. I had been there watching a different football match, got soaked in the rain and saw lightening but it wasn’t until much later when the storm had passed and I saw a very dense crowd packed together in a different part of the square, and asked what was going on that I found out. I was also told that tradition has it that the deceased is buried where he was killed, so a crowd remained there for hours, presumably digging a grave and burying the poor guy.
Today however the crowds gathering will be much happier. Already – its 10am – there is a rising swell of crowd noise drifting into the compound from all directions, shouts, trumpet blasts, and occasional chanting and ululating of women, increasingly frequent clusters of happily animated laughing and shouting people hurrying past the compound walls with Flags and music, increased numbers of bikes and motorbikes, a sense of building excitement and anticipation. I am not sure what exactly has been planned for the Square but  peering over our razor-wire topped wall I saw a cluster of men jog past wearing tiny leopard skin sort of skirts, some crude white body paint, long poles in their hands and chanting as they ran, so I daresay there will be lots of local colour, traditional dance and song.

Unfortunately, all this excitement and nationalistic fervor is seen by our MSF leaders as representing an increased threat to foreigners. We have all been confined to Barracks since yesterday, and forbidden to walk outside the compound for any reason. When we need to go to the hospital we have to be driven there, and the route has been changed so we don’t go anywhere near Freedom Square. Its thought there may be an influx into the hospital of  accident and trauma victims, and if people move into Aweil from surrounding towns we may even have some extra babies to deal with.

To be excluded from participating or even witnessing all this of course is very disappointing , but its easy to understand why such a risk averse policy is so rigorously applied: there is a long sad list of MSF workers worldwide who have been beaten, kidnapped and even killed while in places like this, doing humanitarian work. Right now two MSF  workers remain hostages somewhere in Somalia, and this very week threats of murder have been made against MSF right here in Aweil!  These were made by a local person formerly an MSF employee who was dismissed when found to be a thief. Similar threats were made last month by another disgruntled former local employee who tried to set fire to our compound, and drew a knife when tackled in the very act of sprinkling petrol about the place!
The brutality and horror of civil war is very fresh in the minds of the people here, and violence, for so long a part of everyday life still seems to be close to the surface even now. No doubt there are still many guns around, many knives, many unsettled scores, grudges and grievances. I have spoken with people who have personal experience of atrocities and war crimes, some committed by the notorious “Koni” who operated out of neighboring Uganda and also in Southern Sudan, not too far from Aweil which apparently at one time was in the centre of much of the appalling violence. A lovely woman on the hospital staff told me  a horrifying tale of how she came to be raising her brother and sister-in- laws children – the children’s parents were murdered in random violence – the grisly details are too ghastly to repeat, but  believe me they would make you shudder.

So I can easily understand why today must be a day of huge celebration for everyone, the miracle of Independence, the end of so much horror and uncertainty, a chance to make a future and to be at Peace. Never-the-less, Independence Day is also a reminder of what went before, and for many it must be a day of very mixed emotion. Hopefully they wont get out of hand.

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