9 Jul 2011

The meaning of independent South Sudan

Channel 4 News’ International Editor Lindsey Hilsum speaks to the “jubilating” crowds celebrating South Sudan’s independence.

Channel 4 News’ International Editor Lindsey Hilsum speaks to the “jubilating” crowds celebrating South Sudan’s independence.

I wanted to be in South Sudan for Independence because I used to come here in the 1980s to cover the war against the north.

In those days, the only way into Juba, the southern capital, was by missionary or aid agency plane.

There were no paved roads. Everyone was terrified of the soldiers from northern Sudan who controlled the town. Any southerner who objected, risked imprisonment or worse.

Juba was ringed by camps of desperate refugees who had fled fighting in the bush. I remember meeting a woman who had just given birth. I asked the baby’s name, and she replied “Troubles”.

I doubt that she or her baby survived to witness today’s Independence celebrations. Rates of maternal and infant mortality remain frighteningly high, and in those days her chances were even worse.

The new government says two and a half million people died in the twenty years of war from 1983 – 2005, but no-one really knows.

That was then and this is now.

Today the field next to the John Garang Mausoleum – John Garang being the southern Sudan guerrilla leader who died in 2005 – was packed with thousands of excited people. They were, as they say here, “jubilating” (pictured above).

One man had painted his face and torso with the new South Sudan flag. Another had fashioned a hat from cardboard and written in felt tip: “We are free”.

I met a young woman called Aisha who had been born during the war in the 1980s and, as she put it, “seen things children shouldn’t see.” Her family had fled to Kenya where she got her education, before emigrating to Canada. Three weeks ago, she returned to South Sudan.

“I got fed up of people asking, where are you from?” she said. “I didn’t really have an answer. But now I do.”

She wept as the new flag of South Sudan was raised. She and her husband planned to move back here and try to contribute to the new nation.

She was a “gender specialist”, meaning, I presume, that she tries to help governments, or companies provide better opportunities for women.

Well, South Sudan could do with a bit of that. There are three times as many boys as girls in school. No women spoke on the platform at today’s Independence celebrations.

But any birth should be a cause for optimism, and this new nation certainly has the goodwill of the world. Representatives from the USA, China and the UK joined African heads of state on the podium. There weren’t enough seats, so the generals of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the guerrilla force which fought the war for independence, gave up theirs.

As we made our way back to the car, we came across a tall, older man in a white suit. I asked him what Independence meant to him.

“Now I am somebody with a nation,” he said. “That means I have my own dignity and I have to be respected all over the world.”

Follow Lindsey on Twitter @lindseyhilsum