Three years after the Republic of South Sudan’s exhilarating independence on July 9, 2011, following decades of civil war, the people of this young nation are facing their most dire crisis yet.

 Since fighting erupted in the capital of Juba in December 2013, thousands of South Sudanese have been killed or traumatized and more than 1.5 million have been displaced. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently told the U.N. Security Council that by the end of 2014, half of South Sudan’s population of 12 million will be in flight, facing starvation or dead.

When I returned to South Sudan in May for the first time since the crisis began, the significance of this tragedy was clear. Tension and fear permeate the capital, Juba. Women and children no longer fill the streets as they used to, walking safely to school and marketplaces. Some parts of town are empty of residents, who now live in crowded sites in squalid conditions, afraid to go home after violence they witnessed months ago. The U.S. Government is working with heroic South Sudanese staff and international partners to respond to this heartbreaking crisis with urgency within South Sudan and in neighboring countries that are hosting South Sudanese refugees, increasing our food and other lifesaving assistance and adjusting our existing development programs to respond to the current crisis.

South Sudanese displaced by conflict in Unity State use water lillies as a primary food source. / Jacob Zocherman, Mercy Corps

South Sudanese displaced by conflict in Unity State use water lillies as a primary food source. / Jacob Zocherman, Mercy Corps

In the desperate and crowded conditions where tens of thousands of South Sudanese are now taking shelter, hygiene and sanitation are a major concern, as illnesses such as cholera could spark an epidemic. Since April, the U.N. World Health Organization has reported more than 2,900 cases of cholera, including 67 deaths in South Sudan, primarily in Juba and surrounding areas. Through radio and innovative means of reaching displaced populations, such as loudspeaker announcements delivered by quad bike in compounds where displaced people have taken shelter, we are reaching tens of thousands of South Sudanese with important information on topics such as hygiene and how to prevent cholera. Ninety-eight percent of residents sheltering at the U.N. Tongping protection site are familiar with the program, a survey by our partner Internews showed, and two-thirds said they had changed their behavior, in hygiene or other ways, as a result of information from the program.

In Mingkaman, Lakes State, which hosts South Sudan’s largest displaced population, I saw the importance of USAID support for an FM radio station that broadcasts information to tens of thousands of people, including programs on available medical services and clean water, and safety issues such as the danger of crocodiles in the nearby river where people bathe. This station and other USAID-supported radio stations have call-in shows that give citizens a platform to say what they have been through – an important outlet in a traumatized society.

 In response to a nationwide stockout of essential drugs including antibiotics and anti-malaria medication, and with funds contributed by the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom, we are delivering desperately needed basic medicines to cover the entire population of South Sudan for one year. In the midst of conflict and the rainy season, which makes many areas impassable by road, this is no easy feat. But through our ongoing advocacy efforts, we have secured government permission to deliver to the most conflict-affected states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei, where needs are greatest and tensions between opposing forces highest.

 As tens of thousands of children have fled their homes due to violence, we launched a new program with UNICEF to provide education to 150,000 displaced children, so that they have safe spaces and materials to learn. This effort includes targeting 60,000 girls for education, as part of USAID’s Let Girls Learn initiative. A grateful educator told me during the event in Juba where we launched the program that South Sudan’s children have the right to learn, despite the challenging circumstances they face, and that our investment in these children would last even if buildings and roads were destroyed during the fighting. Education creates an important sense of normalcy in the lives of children affected by violence. It is critical that the next generation in South Sudan is literate and gains life skills through education, which can help avert the cycle of violence that has defined South Sudan’s tragic history.

 Davorah Nyariera escaped fierce fighting in Bentiu, South Sudan, empty-handed with her children and grandchildren. / Jacob Zocherman, Mercy Corps

Davorah Nyariera escaped fierce fighting in Bentiu, South Sudan, empty-handed with her children and grandchildren. / Jacob Zocherman, Mercy Corps

In a polarized conflict situation, it is also important to enable many citizens’ voices to be heard and many viewpoints expressed. So we are helping to strengthen civil society in South Sudan, including by providing support to enable civil society organizations to participate in South Sudan’s peace process. What I heard repeatedly from all of the citizens I talked to was that peace is possible—and that it is the one thing that everyone could agree on.

And perhaps most urgently, famine conditions threaten up to 1 million people in parts of South Sudan. In addition to lifesaving humanitarian assistance including food, nutrition and clean water, USAID funds the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which is providing crucial information on crops and food availability. This information, along with other sources of information about the growing humanitarian crisis, galvanized the international community to provide more than $618 million in needed humanitarian funds at a conference in Oslo in May – nearly half provided by the United States.

We are continuing to provide assistance in agriculture, focused in the relatively stable Equatoria states, where agricultural potential is greatest. Before conflict erupted, USAID assistance to farmers in the Equatoria states helped them achieve a tripling of crop yields – an achievement we can build on to strengthen food security in South Sudan.

While the people of South Sudan have in many ways not yet reaped the benefits of their independence, I came away from my latest visit reassured that the efforts of those responding to the crisis are saving lives, and that many more people in South Sudan are committed to peace and an inclusive future than those who are content to tear their nation apart. I was asked by a reporter on the day I was leaving South Sudan if the United States thought it could save South Sudan.  After hearing the stories of a diverse, proud, and resilient nation of people, I was able to respond that we could be part of the solution that the South Sudanese people are fashioning for themselves.

As we reflect on South Sudan’s third anniversary of nationhood, USAID remains more committed than ever to the people of South Sudan and we will continue to help them build the peaceful and secure future they deserve.


Linda Etim is Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, overseeing the Office of Sudan and South Sudan Programs and the Office of East African Affairs. She most recently traveled to South Sudan in May.