The Republic of South Sudan marks its first anniversary as an independent country today.
Last July 9 2011, the Southern Sudanese were out in full force, celebrating a new state - separate from the Republic of Sudan - following a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 and a referendum last year.
One year later, civilians are still bearing the brunt of the series of communal conflicts and border disputes which continue to uproot people from their homes and generate huge humanitarian needs.
Returnees slow down
The South Sudanese, who had taken refuge in neighbouring countries started pouring back to their new nation filled with hopes and dreams of a new future. In the five years up to October 2010, a staggering 2.5 million Southern Sudanese had returned home. This return has slowed down in the last eighteen months or so
For Nyandeng Kuol Denk, who went back to Jonglei State in South Sudan in 2007, having lived at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya for eight years, this has been an arduous year and one which has left her life in tatters. She and her five children, the youngest being seven month old twins, ran for their lives in May 2012, when their village, Wangulei, was attacked. Her husband was killed in the raid. She and her children made their way back to Kakuma camp, walking for days.
"The South Sudan flag, raised a year ago, has made things worse for the civilians; the militia have become more brutal" Nyandeng told me on a recent visit to Kakuma Refugee camp "They kill our men and children, burn houses and entire villages, steal cattle and force us into the bush – I cannot go back now, there is nothing there for me anymore."
Refugees on the increase
While the returnees are trickling in as they closely watch the developments in the world's newest country, refugees from the Republic of Sudan are pouring in to seek refuge with their southern neighbour. Fighting in Sudan's Blue Nile and South Kordorfan States has forced many to flee for their lives. Running from attacks, the refugees are walking with whatever they can salvage, arriving exhausted and traumatised into South Sudan's Upper Nile and Unity States. More than 200,000 refugees are living in camps, with hundreds more arriving daily.
Humanitarian organisations working on the ground say that more is needed because of growing health concerns: more actors and more assistance. In South Sudan, the challenges are multiple: the large numbers of people in need; the number of organisations who can come in quickly and the lack of basic infrastructure which hampers aid delivery at the best of times. Now, with the onset of the rainy season, the situation is far worse and deteriorating.
Rains cause logistical nightmares
Upper Nile State, in the north-eastern corner of the country, is largely swampy with black cotton soil. This combined with a downpour makes roads impassable and airstrips unusable.
When travelling from Juba to Upper Nile, the uncertainty was palpable. We took off with ease, but the landing was not a given. Rains in the past days had forced the cancellation and return of numerous goods and passenger flights, as well as rendering cargo trucks wheel-deep in sticky black cotton soil.
Sitting in the small Cessna Caravan, cruising over the spectacular landscape of South Sudan, I was reminded of times in the past -1998/9 to be precise - when I had been on numerous similar planes, wondering even then if we would be able to land due to rains. Then, it was Bahr-el-Ghazal, in southern Sudan, where the civilians were suffering from a catastrophic famine which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
It would appear that not much has changed in South Sudan in the last decades, bar the new independence tag and the proliferation of buildings in the current capital Juba. People are still fleeing violence and being uprooted from their homes by conflict; the civilians are still suffering and nature's deluges exacerbate the distress.
What is clear is the magnanimity of the South Sudanese people who have lost and endured so much in their lives and yet continue to believe in a brighter and better future for themselves and their children in their newly independent country.