South Sudan’s optimism since gaining independence in 2011 has slowly faded under the weight of political conflict. SBS World News speaks with Francois Stamm, the former head of the country's Red Crosson on where to now.
Despite five years of conflict in South Sudan where nearly 400,000 people lost their lives and one-third of the population were forced from their homes, the plight of the world’s youngest nation has been overshadowed by the international fight against “black flags” and radical Islam, according to the outgoing head of the country’s largest humanitarian aid program.
Francois Stamm led the thousand-strong Red Cross delegation to South Sudan and has told SBS World News The Gallery the landlocked nation has become “a neglected part of Africa.”
“It’s been hard in South Sudan because despite the scale of the problem - and the suffering, it is true that one doesn’t speak much about this country... and I think this is maybe related to the fact you don’t have, for instance, radical Islam, you don’t have black flags flying over South Sudan”, Mr Stamm said.
“You have the same thing with migration – you don’t have refugees from South Sudan reaching Western Europe or Australia.”
After a string of failed peace deals, Mr Stamm says he is “reasonably optimistic” that a power-sharing agreement between President Salva Kiir and opposition leaders, including Riek Machar, in September, will lead to an enduring ceasefire.
“I really hope that this fragile peace that we seem to be having now will hold and we can begin to look at more positive things.”
“We have noticed on the ground a significant reduction in the number of armed clashes between the government and the opposition.”
“If I was talking to you one year ago, I would have told you very different stories - of a massive military offensive, massive displacement, burnt villages and refugees going out of South Sudan.”
“It might work, it might not work - let’s be frank about this.”
After the decades-long fight for independence, there was much excitement when South Sudan became the world’s newest nation in 2011.
“There was so much positive feeling, not only in South Sudan, but also in the whole of Africa and the whole of the world about this new nation and it has all collapsed rather quickly.”
“It’s been very difficult, very painful and very sad – particularly because this violence is the direct result of a lack of political agreement between South Sudanese leaders on power-sharing.”
Mr Stamm says that without sustainable peace, it will be difficult to improve the lives of the South Sudanese people.
“You have a lot of severe, serious and repeated violations of the most basic norms of international humanitarian law – sexual violence is very high, civilians are targeted, villages are burned and people are being displaced.”
Eighty-five per cent of the more than two million displaced citizens are women and children.
“In the new constitution, in the new parliament, they have quotas for women... but the level of sexual violence in South Sudan is extremely high. It is fair to say, in the traditional society, polygamy is still very common. If you are a man of wealth, you have many wives.
“The weakness of South Sudan, in my view, is what we would understand as civil society is not very strongly developed yet.
“You have only between 10 and 15 per cent of women in South Sudan who know how to read and write, it’s one of the lowest rates in the world.”
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia has contributed almost $103 million in humanitarian assistance since the outbreak of violence in 2013 and Australian Defence Force personnel remain deployed in South Sedan as part of the world’s largest peacekeeping operation.
“If you look at the situation in South Sudan, one has to say it’s not working very well... but without this aid, I think it’s fair to say the situation would be much, much worse.”
Mr Stamm believes the next twelve months will be crucial to the fledging nation’s future.
“I think 2019 will be a very interesting year for South Sudan because either (the peace deal) sticks or it doesn’t. Will (the power-sharing deal) hold? I do not know.
“What I do know, is everything else in South Sudan only starts with peace.”