When Gloria Soma left university in Tanzania in 2013, she decided to head to the homeland she had never really known. Her parents had left southern Sudan in the early 1990s and she had grown up in refugee camps abroad, first in Uganda during the “hard times” of the Lord’s Resistance Army and later in Kenya. While immersed in her studies, the Republic of South Sudan was born, the 193rd country to join the UN. And she wanted to go.
“It was very exciting for me because I thought… I would come back and there would be many opportunities and it would be a quiet place for everyone to live,” says Soma. “There was already a certain sense of belonging. Because, as much as I had stayed most of my life in the East African region, there had always been [the question of] ‘Where do you belong?’ I was that part of me [that felt] ‘finally, we’re going to belong somewhere.’ But it didn’t happen. “
Ten years ago on Friday, on a hot and heady day, tens of thousands of people gathered in the city of Juba along with foreign dignitaries and the UN Secretary General to watch the Sudanese flag lowered and the Sudanese flag raised. South Sudan. Dressed in his trademark black cowboy hat, Salva Kiir, a former rebel leader turned politician, was sworn in as president. A man dressed as the Statue of Liberty was holding a sign that read: “Free at last. Republic of South Sudan “.
Except, as Soma says, it didn’t work out that way.
The decade that followed independence was dominated by civil war and large-scale human rights abuses, to the point where one member of the UN Human Rights Commission in South Sudan He said in 2019: “Impunity is so ingrained in South Sudan that all kinds of rules are broken.” The war, which lasted from 2013 to 2018, has given way to a fragile peace marked by episodes of conflict, economic crisis and a disturbing sense of permanent instability.
Soma says: “One of my biggest fears living in South Sudan is that you have to mentally prepare your head so that at any moment, at any moment, anything can go wrong. I don’t feel safe … There is always that feeling of fear. “
Soma, 32, is the director of the Titi Foundation, a Juba-based NGO that focuses on women and children in a country where one in 10 babies is not expected to turn five, where sexual violence against women and children girls is endemic and where 1.4 million children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year, highest number since 2013. So there is no shortage of work.
More than 70% of Titi’s staff are women, the result of a deliberate strategy that Soma longs to see replicated throughout society and at the highest levels of political leadership. “Women in South Sudan, for a long time, have been marginalized and considered second-class citizens who cannot give birth,” she says, arguing that this attitude is not only wrong but is holding the country back: “It leaves out ideas for innovations that women would have brought to the table if they had the chance. “
The inspiration to create Titi came to Soma in 2016, when, as a central bank official, she first faced the realities of war. In July of that year, when clashes between troops loyal to Kiir and soldiers supporting the vice president, Riek Machar, broke out in the streets of Juba, she opened her family compound to hundreds of women and children to protect herself from violence. . During the following days he listened to their stories: of rape, murder, kidnapping; large-scale forced displacement; and also, remember, of tired and traumatic acceptance. “They kept telling us, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ We thought, ‘how can it be okay? This is not normal’.”
When he finally ventured out to Juba after a ceasefire, “the whole road was practically lifeless. You just smelled fresh blood. It was crazy for us, because personally I had never witnessed that, but that was the reality. ” Soma’s first instinct was to take his two children and leave South Sudan. He recognizes that it is a great privilege to have been able to leave the country.
But after three months in Kampala, Uganda, she began to feel uncomfortable. “I just wasn’t comfortable with what I had left behind. And that’s what triggered me. I said, you know what? I’m going back and I hope I can contribute in my own way. And that’s how the foundation started ”.
As your country faces a tangle of interrelated problems, from the climate crisis and Covid to the resurgence of conflict and, in some placesNear famine, Soma is determined to move on. Through Titi, you can address a variety of issues, from basic humanitarian needs, such as food insecurity and child nutrition, to more ambitious projects to reduce gender-based violence and boost female employment. Titi’s efforts to help women maintain hygiene amid the pandemic, through the provision of food, soap and clean water, are supported by Cafod.
But his feeling of frustration with the national political leadership and the international community is palpable; the first for wasting the hopes of 2011 so completely, and the second for not doing enough to prevent it.
As South Sudan moves erratically toward peace, it needs to embark on a healing process, he says, to face the trauma that exists in people’s consciousness. At the moment, there is not enough responsibility for any cure, he warns, citing the example of Bentiu, the capital of the Northern Liech state, where in 2018 Doctors Without Borders reported that 125 women and girls were raped in a 10-day frenzy of violence. . Survivors also reported being whipped, beaten and beaten with rifle butts. Local officials disputed the accounts, and according to Soma, no one has been convicted.
“To date, we have challenges to ensure that these people get justice,” she says, speaking from Kampala, where she is on maternity leave, expecting her fourth child. “We need some kind of ‘safe center’ where these [survivors] you can come out and have the conversation. “
The scourge of sexual violence is still around, he says. The Titi Foundation is now working with other women’s rights organizations to push for more prosecutions of those accused of abuses against women and girls. “Yes, it has been a slow process,” he says, “but from 2018 to date we have been able to follow up on these cases and [convict] about 56 perpetrators. Our goal is to prosecute about 500, so that people can see the reality and the degree of atrocities committed. Our hope is that by doing this we can also bring some reassurance to the victims. “
Do you have any hope for the future of your country, which in its short life has seen so much suffering? The answer is a highly nuanced “yes”. “I’m optimistic,” he says, “but only if we start to have everyone settled into these spaces to have conversations. We need people to heal so that we can move forward. Unfortunately, right now everything is quite fractured … So how can that be cured? How do we rectify those mistakes that the current leadership has created? It’s going to take some time, in my opinion, a long time, before that can happen. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism