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FEATURE: The Traumatic cost of the war in South Sudan

By Sam Aola Ooko*

September 4, 2008 (NAIROBI) — In 2005 peace, albeit a semblance of it, returned to the large swathe of land within the Republic of Sudan known as Southern Sudan with the signing of a document called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Government soldiers of Sudanese president, General Hassan Omer Al-Bashir and those of the rebel Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) of late Dr. John Garang de Mabior, downed their blazing guns for the last time.

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Families sit outside their basic shelters, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005 in a camp for returnees in Rumbek in southern Sudan. (AP)

The ceremony in Nairobi, witnessed by then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, effectively ended 22 years of the second civil war between the Arabised North and the black African South. But peace in the south remains fragile. And this shakes to the core the very base on which this peace stands because the Sudanese, mainly in the south, are still counting the traumatic cost of the bitter war.

But Sudan had been in a state of war for a longer time. In 1955, a mutiny of southern soldiers in Juba sparked the first Sudanese civil war, which did not end until 1972. At the last time of checking, more than 200,000 Sudanese had been displaced from their homes and thousands more killed in an ongoing conflict pitting government-backed militias and local insurgents in Darfur, a part of the Sudanese North bordering Chad.

The fragility of peace here comes in more ways than one. Poverty, ignorance and disease - the three enemies of progress that made them go to war with the North over unequal distribution of national resources and social freedom are still biting hard.

Local conflicts still abound and not a day passes without a cry of desperation renting out in the eerie Southern air. Lately political jostling amid the bloody clan realignments for government positions and charges of grand corruption by their supposed liberators have added to the toll and the Southern Sudanese are paying dearly for it.

Tension over sharing of scarce resources and apportionment of state wealth (mainly oil within Abyei on the presumptive North-South border), cattle raids and militia activity are a common occurrence here, spilling over to issues around the implementation of the CPA and an upcoming referendum in 2011 on self-determination for the South.

Traumatic experiences of the war haunt everyone here. The soldiers who have only known war and are trying hard to eke out a living in peaceful and normal conditions, the women who lost their fringe sexuality to the assaults, rapes and abuses at the hands of men in warring factions and the children and young people who virtually lost their innocent childhood to the tragedies of the war.
Trying to be normal in a place where the most basic of services are missing or unreliable is not easy and, according to Global Aid Network, a charity working in the area, water, food, permanent shelter, roads, infrastructure, and agriculture are vital to a full return to normalcy. Which means that addressing the deep mental and emotional wounds of the Sudanese survivors themselves, including children, most of whom have witnessed physical maiming, torturing, and killing of neighbours, friends, or family should be paramount.

In every village I visited in Southern Sudan as I went about chronicling the traumatic effects of the war in Southern Sudan, I saw expressions of dejection, sadness, hopelessness, uselessness in the faces of those I interacted with. This article attempts to bring out the real traumatic cost of the war and the efforts by civil society and aid workers working there towards rebuilding, recovering - and healing - a new South Sudan.

True, the figures are as massive as they are devastating. Apart from the deaths, there is still displacement issues to deal with, not mentioning the destruction of livelihoods. From 1983 until 2005, the war in southern and central Sudan left more than two million people dead and drove some 4.5 million civilians from their homes. From 2003 to the present, the war in Darfur has killed at least 200,000 (possibly up to 400,000) people and driven more than 2.5 million people from their homes.

What is the psychological cost of this and the mitigating factors that influence it? Enormous, experts and aid workers echo in agreement. Anisa Achieng, an aid worker for an American church organization, says: "Communities still need to learn how to foster peace, but current conditions make this difficult. Families are still displaced, people have easy access to arms, and tough living conditions make some people desperate."

Dr. Yousif Ismail Abdullah, who runs the Peace and Tolerance International Organization in Omdurman, adds: "There is need to provide emergency psychological assistance related to availing collective and individual psychiatric and psychological therapy and counselling. There should be a trauma centre created to raise awareness among targeted groups of how to revert to normal life, with less depression and post traumatic stress disorders (PSTD)." This will target psychiatrists, psychologists, counselling staff, volunteers, social workers at local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Juba and surrounding areas.

In a nutshell, it comes to one point - that instead of war, the people must now be equipped psychologically to wage peace. But experiences of 20 or more years of war are not easy to put beyond everybody’s thinking. "We southerners are really suffering, during the war and up to now," says Agnes Odwar, a member of parliament for Torit County. "We’re now learning how to bring peace to our people, families and communities."

Catholic Relief Services runs a conflict resolution program to promote peace in the area. Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program teaches participants to peacefully resolve conflict over the long term. The program explores explored five principles that form the foundation of a peaceful, healthy society: security, conflict transformation, justice, trauma healing and identity.

While the training prepares participants to use conflict transformation and peace building skills professionally in their communities, attendees also go through their own personal journey of healing. Most participants lost family members and friends during the civil war. Many were also forced to flee Sudan for years, even being separated from their husbands and children.

Beatrice Omony Ogak, an officer in the regional government of Eastern Equatoria, said after attending a STAR session: "The trauma in me has been released. I had hatred built up toward the offender, but I wouldn’t meet with them, now I’ve forgiven them, and today I’ve become the example. People expected me to be down, but I raise my head. I now build my future." Beatrice’s child was killed during an attack by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that sometimes conducts raids in southern Sudan.

But the stories of former child soldiers forcefully drafted to fight their perceived enemies during the war must also be told. Adama Mutiak, 15, a former child soldier, is still recovering from the trauma he has suffered. He has never known a normal childhood and, like many others in southern Sudan and neighbouring Northern Uganda, where Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels have reined supreme since early 1980s, Adama lost his childhood to war.

He was kidnapped at the age of 10 by the LRA and forced to march from his native Uganda into Sudan, where the LRA has jungle bases. He was only abandoned in the bush after about 4 years after suffering a gunshot wound to the leg because he could walk no further. "I still think they will come back for me when I am healed although I know the war is over", he tells me. "The nightmares I suffer daily about the people I was forced to shoot dead makes me think that life has no meaning but I try to move on."

Rumbek is the administrative capital of Lakes state - also known as Buhayrat- within the Southern Sudan government. Here, I encountered people with previously untold stories of suffering under stress. Monica Agwir, a 40 year old mother of six, was herding cattle in the hot, scorching sun near the dust-capped village of Malual when I met her.

She told me how she has tried to shake off the psychological trauma of the war to no avail. "I suffer a lot, because I think of a better future for my children but I only see a bleak one." Why, I ask. "Because our past is guiding our present and our future, but our past is a bad past; we were raped during the war, our children forced to kill and all our property destroyed. And nobody has come with anything to appease us despite the peace agreement. Look at me, I still have bitter memories that this hot sun cannot burn out", she responded philosophically.

Of course her angry words also translate that life is very unbearable. For a long time, the Southern Sudanese people were unable to grow food or earn money to feed themselves, and malnutrition and starvation became widespread. It is still the same story.
But a few women now talk about their rape experiences, hitherto a taboo subject in southern Sudanese culture in spite of the psychological trauma. As with most rape victims, the victims are reluctant to talk about the experience. Many of them will not talk about it. The doctor may see physical evidence of sexual violence. The social worker may see behavioral evidence. But until a trust relationship is established, the rape victim will never reveal the true source of her pain.

Juba has changed so much since the triumphant entry of the SPLA forces in 2005 soon after the signing of the CPA. Serving as permanent regional capital of Southern Sudan, it has gain new status of importance. With the advent of peace, the United Nations has increased its presence in Juba, whereas many Southern Sudan operations had until that time been managed from Kenya. Under the leadership of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN established a camp known as "OCHA Camp", which serves as a base for many aid agencies and non-governmental organizations.

But the local populations in the fringe areas are suffering untold trauma from the presence of land mines and other unexploded ordnances. "We know that there are bombs in our villages yet we live here. This has made us feel scared and traumatized a lot because our movement is hindered and we cannot do any meaningful farming or animal husbandry which are our mainstay", a 65 year old father of eight and a grandfather, Dieng Maluk, told me.

In 2004, a team from University of Konstanz in Germany documented a study on trauma in Southern Sudan. The team’s findings, published as "Psychological trauma and evidence for enhanced vulnerability for posttraumatic stress disorder through previous trauma among West Nile refugees" confirmed the trauma problem in the region that continues to this day.

However, mitigating social demographics have meant that Southern Sudanese people - men, women and children - have experienced many traumatic events and suffered many daily hassles that affect them psychologically, and this still continues after the end of the war. Many traumatic and PTSD-like complaints, behavioural problems, and depressive symptoms are being reported in Southern Sudan.

In their 2002 book, Trauma, War, and Violence: Public Mental Health in Socio-Cultural Context, Joop T. V. M. De Jong and Joop de Jong, admitted that massive traumatic stress resulting from armed conflict and terrorism remained a prime concern of governments, non-government organizations and the UN.

Yet there is little systematic knowledge of how to address psychological problems of these proportions. These situations are further complicated by the lack of culturally appropriate models for mental health care in many low-income countries, and Southern Sudan is a case in point. But the world must help the suffering innocent victims who continue to pay the price. It is a heavy cost to pay, but traumatic effects of war should not just be left to the victims, nonetheless.

*Sam Aola Ooko is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist writing on sustainable development and on the environment. He is the founder director of Africa Journalists Network on Stress and Trauma (AJNST) http://africatraumajournal.wordpress.com