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September 06, 2011

Safety in the World's Newest Nation—South Sudan

By WorldNomads

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(South Sudanese celebrate winning the referendum on independence)

There's a pretty good chance you've never visited this country, because until July 9, 2011, the Republic of Southern Sudan didn't exist. Of course it did physically exist—the land, the water, and the people—but until the official declaration of independence, it wasn't a nation.

Unless you are an aid worker, a United Nations official, or a very foolhardy traveler, it's unlikely you've been anyway, because this was one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

Civil War
Northern Sudan and the government in Khartoum were at war with Southern Sudan and the rebels based in Juba, the country's largest city. It was Africa's longest civil war, 1983-2005, and resulted in the deaths of two million people and the displacement of another four million.

Visitors not caught in the crossfire, or stumbling on the tens of thousands of landmines littering the countryside, ran a gauntlet of outlaws and criminals who regarded any foreigner as an intruder, or a walking bag of cash to be held for ransom.

The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement (SPLAM) in the south also backed the rebels in Darfur, in the west of Sudan, and in their insurgency against Khartoum. The dangerous nature of these combined conflicts was reflected in the travel warnings from foreign governments—many simply advised their citizens they should not go there at all.

(A typical Juba street)

Why the War?
It's complicated, with many factors at the root of this evil, but the major factors are religious, ethnic, and economic. When the leaders of Europe carved up Africa they threw the nomadic-Arab west in with the equatorial-African south and put the capital in the Islamic Egyptian-influenced north (and then wondered why they started fighting each other).

Eighty-five percent of Sudan's not inconsiderable oil reserves are in the south, but all the pipelines and ports (and the wealth that produces) are in the north. Say no more.

Will Independence Make It Safe?
Well, it's safer because the two sides are not actively at war all the time, although there are still skirmishes, particularly in a dispute over the Abyei region that lies between the two. The northern Sudanese forces seized the region in the last clash in May/June 2011 (not exactly ancient history).

It would be prudent to stay away from the northeastern regions that border with Sudan's South Kurdufan province, as would it be to stay away from the northwestern regions that border with the Durfur provinces of Sudan. The independence struggle there continues, and the outlaws, criminals, terrorists, and heavily armed rebels still hold the upper hand.

On its smartraveller website the Australian government says this:

More than ten foreigners have been kidnapped in Darfur in 2010, including US, German, South African, Russian and Jordanian citizens. At least ten were kidnapped in 2009. Some victims were held captive for more than 100 days. Kidnappings have occurred in North, South and West Darfur. Kidnappings are not restricted to rural areas. They have also occurred in and around the state capitals and towns, including Nyala, Kutum and Zalingei. Aid workers and expatriates are commonly targeted.

New & Poor
On the official Government of Southern Sudan website president Kiir invites everyone to come and celebrate this birth of a nation and to help in building its future, so the welcome mat has been put at the door.

However you may find the going a bit tough. The long civil war and the institutionalized and deliberate neglect of the south means the capital Juba is a lot like an old Wild West town. The streets are dusty (or muddy in the wet season) and a maze of potholes. A recent Reuters article painted a picture of a city where few buildings rise above two stories, which relies on generators for power and is plunged into darkness regularly, and where the police are a mish-mash of rebels pressed into smart new uniforms and suspect anyone on the street after dark is a criminal.

Of course the Republic of Southern Sudan has the oil reserves to change that (when it can get access), but with the easy wealth will come the problems all frontier towns face. Some comment that alcohol, which was banned when the Islamic government in the north was in charge, is now widely used, and possibly abused. In Juba, mostly unemployed, and definitely under-employed, men sit in groups drinking Kenyan beer at outdoor cafés.

South Sudan sits in the equatorial zone, and according to the president intends to be the breadbasket of Africa. There are national parks, lakes, and the swamplands of the White Nile, which attract wildlife and game in huge numbers. All of this is mostly untouched because of atrocious roads, poor services, and non-existent infrastructure.

Health & Disease
Health and medical services are rudimentary. Many governments intend to open diplomatic missions in Southern Sudan, but haven't yet. Consular help if you need it will be difficult to get.

The Sudanese have a life expectancy of 57 years, an indicator of the tough conditions. Infant mortality runs at 69 deaths per 100 live births. The HIV/AIDS rate is about three percent. Malaria is common, as is dengue fever. Before departing you'll need vaccination against yellow fever and typhoid.

As recently as January 2011, there was a measles outbreak in the Unity province. And a new disease has emerged—nodding disease that causes a mentally and physically disabling, and eventually fatal, condition in young children.

The Future
South Sudan has the possibility of becoming an eco-tourism gem, with sustainable growth fueled by oil reserves, as long as the former rebels in charge of the economy resist corruption. South Sudan's destiny will become clearer in the months and years after the fireworks at the weekend's independence celebrations have fizzled out.

For now, let's welcome the world's newest nation and wish them well...maybe we'll come to visit soon.

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Related Topics: Africa Travel · Travel News


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