“I had to tell the driver to stop, STOP! There was shooting up ahead. He stopped and we got out and dove for the ground for cover.” These are the words of a United Nations Peacekeeper who I met yesterday. Let’s call him Badu to protect his identity. Badu was in the town of Kadugli in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state when fighting broke out in June. He was telling me how on the day the fighting started he was turned around at gunpoint only to face more shooting in the other direction.
Badu has escaped the fighting in Kadugli but not the memory of how the UN was unable to protect the civilians that came to its doors. Even national staff had to be told that their safety could not be guaranteed and some would be arrested in Khartoum. “Shameful,” Badu describes it to me. I am now traveling with one of those national staff, a Nuba woman who is helping us with translation. She is the one who recognized Badu on the streets of Malakal in South Sudan where he continues to serve as a peacekeeper with the UN.
It is ironic that I met Badu in Malakal. The city is a place I visited almost a year ago just days after a militia attack resulted in several deaths, the taking of some 100 orphans hostage, and a brief assault on the UN compound. Badu can take solace that no similar attack has taken place in Malakal since. Still, militias with a history of ties to the North remain a threat, ethnic fighting has broken out in neighboring Jonglei and rumors of new attacks around Malakal continue to pop up.
In a way, Malakal is a microcosm of the challenges faced by South Sudan. There is the militia threat, ethnic tensions, and an army struggling to professionalize itself. The violence in Malakal last year was followed by reports of heavy-handed responses by the South Sudanese army targeting Shilluk civilians. This is all without mentioning the highly fraught but inescapable interdependence with South Sudan’s looming neighbor to the north, Sudan. Indeed a majority of the South Sudan’s states border Sudan. A large proportion of the population depends on trade with the north, even as violence and persecution across the border brings a steady stream of returnees and refugees, many through Malakal.
This is the situation faced by the fledgling nation of South Sudan. It’s the reason for a large UN mission in the country, and the reason I found Badu in Malakal. No longer facing the direct threat of the Sudanese Armed Forces, he still faces the threat of violence and limited resources to deal with myriad problems. Yet Badu remains undeterred, focusing on one part of the puzzle that he might contribute to through work on child protection. As he bids me a warm farewell, I can see that he is still hopeful, still the peacekeeper.