This Saturday, July 9, marks the fifth birthday of the world's newest nation. This year however South Sudan won't be commemorating its independence from Sudan with the same joyful celebrations as in 2011.
A decision made two weeks ago by the South Sudanese cabinet to cancel national Independence Day celebrations is a reflection of the myriad of challenges the country is currently facing. A severe economic crisis - which has impacted the ability to pay for national festivities - is the result of civil war and falling global oil prices. Instead the day will be observed in silence and with a presidential statement, so the Government announced.
Two and a half years of bitter conflict between the Government and opposition groups has taken a terrible toll on South Sudanese citizens. 2.3 million people have been displaced and, with harvests disrupted, up to 5.3 million people may face severe food insecurity this summer. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, horrific human rights atrocities have been committed, and many people have lost family members, homes and livelihoods.
Last year international development charity Christian Aid attended an event organised by the South Sudanese diaspora community in the UK. Many of the community were themselves refugees or descendants of refugees from South Sudan's previous experience of civil war, the very war which led to independence. Over one hundred individuals from across the UK's South Sudanese community, representing all regions of South Sudan and all sectors of society- including young people, met to discuss how to achieve justice, reconciliation, peace and unity for all South Sudanese. Bishop Paride Taban, who was awarded a UN peace award in 2013 for his efforts in promoting peace in communities, was invited from South Sudan to address the event. He stressed the need for a spirit of forgiveness, tolerance and compassion. The event provided an open space for all participants to express themselves freely and, with a great spirit of unity and tolerance. Issues such as the need to overcome divisions, the need to heal the pain and trauma caused by war, and the need to end a culture of violence and impunity were discussed. The meeting was seen as a positive start in bringing the diaspora community together and helping to plant a seed of hope in people's hearts.
The story below is taken from an exhibition titled 'Talking Peace' by the Christian Aid Collective, which captured, in part, the stories of South Sudanese living in the UK who attended last summer's event.
Atrocities have been done in our country, even now I don't even know if my family are alive or dead because there is no contact with them.
I try to go to work every day - I go to work in the school as a kitchen assistant - but in the back of my mind think about my family and the way they are living in South Sudan. That's why I want this peace to come. It doesn't matter how it is going to come but it has to come because the poorest, they are the ones who are suffering.
Being South Sudanese is a great gift. I am here today living in the UK. I was not born in Britain but they respected me as a citizen. Where I am living now, I've got a lot of friends from different ethnic backgrounds, they could be Bangladeshi, British, from the midlands, Yorkshire - anywhere and they are still my friend because we are sharing and living in the same country and we have respect between us. That's what unites us as human beings. You respect me and I respect you.
For me the peace is very important to come. That's how I see it. Maybe one day if we come together and unite together as community, the peace will come.
While a peace agreement was signed in August 2015, the crisis in South Sudan is far from over. Violence and conflict continue and have even recently escalated in areas that were previously unaffected. In this light and on a day when celebrating independence is done so with silence, the hopes of the South Sudanese diaspora expressed last year are even more poignant, that 'the peace will come.'
[Photo by Tom Price]