On 9 July 2011, amid raucous celebrations, Africa’s largest country split in two and the nation of South Sudan was born, bringing to an end a brutal civil war that claimed millions of lives. But the surge of optimism that greeted the creation of Africa’s first new nation in almost 20 years masked a grim underlying reality.
As soon as it was created, South Sudan shot to the bottom of the global development rankings. Decades of war had destroyed much of the country’s meagre infrastructure; only one per cent of the population had access to a reliable electricity supply; water sources were polluted with toxins; the country’s entire road network could be travelled in less than an hour. The government was of little help as it quickly became mired in corruption.
But most ominously, that optimism also hid a cauldron of simmering ethnic tensions; South Sudan is home to about 70 ethnic groups, dominated by the Dinka who make up 30 per cent of the population. And, on 15 December 2013, those tensions erupted into a brutal civil war that has since claimed millions of lives.
‘The khawaja [foreigners] are always writing, it is what they do. We need someone to write all this down, so that what has happened is not forgotten.’ So says Joseph Bading, an elderly teacher living in a UN base with 125,000 other South Sudanese civilians, to author and journalist Peter Martell. Over the course of more than a decade that straddled independence day, Martell reported from Sudan and its southern offspring. He interviewed political and military leaders, Mossad spies, aid workers and the paternalistic foreign policy wonks brought in to help guide South Sudan along the path to nationhood. But he also spent a lot of time speaking to ‘ordinary’ people about the extraordinary brutality that they witnessed – he ‘gathered the stories of those who have not spoken of them before’.
Martell has placed those stories within a well-researched history that provides context, but it’s his first-person account that drives this compelling, harrowing story. His despair at the way that events have unfolded is palpable, as is his compassion for the civilians caught up in the tragedy and chaos of South Sudan’s birth and subsequent descent into conflict . This is an important and deeply moving book.
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