It’s difficult to imagine a land with greater conflict and under such economic strain as South Sudan. Photo: United Nations

When David Shearer arrived in South Sudan for a tour of duty that most sane people would surely have avoided like the most lethal of African plagues, the country was on the mend. If you’re dealing in alternative facts, that is.

A year earlier the country sat at the top of the “failed states index”, a US guide to a nation’s vulnerability to conflict or collapse. Today, it sits in second spot in the basket-case league – nudged aside by Somalia.

It’s not entirely clear whether South Sudan has got better or Somalia has deteriorated further. But by even the most generous of gauges, it’s difficult to imagine a land with greater conflict and under such economic strain. Think ethnic cleansing, street murders, rape, corruption, starvation, abduction, looting, torched houses. And inflation at 800-plus per cent in an economy where oil is important but its processing is way beneath its potential.

As a New Zealand’s foreign affairs posting puts it: “There is extreme risk to your security in South Sudan due to ongoing armed conflict, civil unrest and violent crime and we advise against all travel.”

But Shearer, the New Zealander in South Sudan representing the world as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, gives the impression there is no place he would rather be.

Of course, it’s an awful wrench to be torn away from his wife and two children, safe back in Pt Chevalier, Auckland. But, after long spells in humanitarian roles in hell-holes of the world like Rwanda, Iraq, the Balkans and Somalia, this is a job made for the man.

He leads a $NZ1.6 billion peace-keeping mission involving around 15,000 soldiers and police officers and 2000 civilians, drawing a salary around $NZ300,000 tax free. Perhaps what a half-decent Auckland real estate agent might earn in a half-decent year.

After Christmas with the family and an induction over 10 days in New York, he landed in the capital Juba on January 20, as we were wiping sand from our feet as Donald Trump was being inaugurated as president.

Shearer had another president on his mind – President Kiir, leader of the South Sudanese Government and the former commander-in-chief of the state’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the man whose respect he must win if there is any chance of bringing one of the world’s newest countries to normality.

Within a few days, he was in front of the president – a 90-minute session where he listened… and challenged. It was not a soothing diplomatic chat over tea and biscuits. Rather, “nitty-gritty” from both sides.

“You’ve got to establish relationships because you’re here for a while, and you’ve got to be willing to hear and accept their views,” says Shearer from his home in the United Nations compound in the north-west of Juba, the capital. “So you put your views as forcefully as you can, within the realms of being diplomatic and, over time, hope for progress.

“… You have to be critical. We have a famine and you have to be able to call the leaders to account to address that. At the same time, I have to have constructive relationships because all of our operations and the way we work involve relationships with the president. It is a difficult balance.”

Those closed-door discussions with the president and his men (and with opposition leaders as well, inside and outside the country) are anything but namby-pamby if his forthright views on the army are any guide.

“A lot of people have accused the army of being dominated by one ethnic group and, when there have been rebellions against the Government, the army has gone in and put down the rebellion…The ways those rebellions are being put down has been incredibly heavy-handed. The Government will blame the rebel groups but, frankly, the common factor here is the response of the army.”

Whatever happens in South Sudan, progress will be slow. Shearer was in Juba as a 22-year-old in 1981 – on a wild adventure with mates to follow the Nile to its source – and from what he has seen of the country so far its development has progressed very little.

“On pretty much every indicator, South Sudan is not doing well and, for someone coming in here from the outside, the lack of development is quite shocking.”

The logistical issues, hostile environment and dealing with a tetchy Government and warring factions split on tribal backgrounds is enough to keep anyone awake in a burnt land where famine is around the corner.

The country covers 620,000 square kilometres (twice the size of Britain), yet has just 500km in sealed roads. From Juba in the south to Bentiu in the north is 1000km – two week’s travel on dirt roads which become impassable in the rainy season. Hence the UN’s reliance on helicopters and planes.

Shearer decided right from the start that he would not spend all his time in the Juba compound, a sprawling sanctuary to 2000 troops and UN and aid workers, with barbed wire and armed guards around its 5km circumference.

He needed look little further than through the main gates to find the human face of the misery of South Sudan: a village of 33,000 displaced people, living under plastic sheeting formed as tents and choosing their new “home” because of the safety it offers next to the troops.

These are people mostly from around Juba itself, but all around the country – in 10 main UN bases and a handful of smaller ones – frightened people have set up shanty towns alongside overseas troops and humanitarian workers from 50-odd countries, waiting for peace.

During that wait, across the country people die. Every day. The estimate so far is around 300,000.

Shearer puts it this way: “It’s not what it once may have been – where perhaps the odd person may have been killed in a spear attack and everyone sat down and worked out some sort of tribal compensation. These days, you have AK47s and it’s many people killed, houses burnt, rapes.”

David Shearer has traded NZ politics for a high-scale peace-keeping mission involving around 15,000 soldiers and police officers, and 2000 civilians. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Most weeks Shearer has been off to far flung outposts to widen his understanding and show the flag – to “garrisons” like that holding battalions from Mongolia and Ghana. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but around it in a town of scattered shabby huts now sits a settlement of 120,000 people who have fled the looting, rape and killing.

After Juba, it is now the country’s second largest city – frightened people milling aimlessly, savaged by the factional violence and waiting for a sign of peace. Thank god for UN food supplies.

Not long ago Shearer was in Unity state where a 150-odd soldiers, also from Ghana, have set up a base protected by dirt walls and help to protect food and supplies from looters. Under the shadow of the walls in the 42 degree heat is another settlement filled by displaced people from the region.

To those people, the UN offers an island of stability, a chance for life which elsewhere it is cheap. A Ghanian doctor has so far delivered 34 babies to an uncertain future.

“No one likes to be in a camp – they all want to return home,” says Shearer. “But they can’t. Mostly they are scared. But it is not just the physical safety; it is also the economic security they have lost. Their homes have been burnt and so they come to us. It is a dilemma for us because we don’t want people in camps and have to feed them. We want them to go back to their homelands and we’re looking at ways of delivering some sort of flexible support.”

He doesn’t say as much, but you get the feeling he would like to see a more proactive stance from the forces he administers as a sort of CEO to whom everyone reports. He won’t stick his nose where it would be resented, certainly not in his first couple of months, but he does offer the thought that the UN military initiative could be “more robust”. It’s a criticism others have also offered.

“These are soldiers who have come from other countries – from massively different cultures and different levels of training, and soldiers have been killed. No country wants to send their soldiers on a peace-keeping operation and have deaths. I am pushing them to be as robust as they possibly can, but we have to accept that peace-keeping forces are not here to go to war – they are here to keep the peace, on behalf of their country.”

Suggest he’s overseeing mission impossible and he will agree that the prospect of peace and then new democratic elections is probably a long way off, certainly not achievable in his term of office. But he points to a relatively stable Liberia where UN peace-keepers are pulling out after 14 years on the ground.

South Sudan will get there, he says, but it will be a long haul.

There is no Nelson Mandela ready to step up and unify his people.

“This is a very young country and it is very military dominated because it was the army that fought and gained independence. Moving from a military viewpoint to understanding what it means being a statesman and politician is difficult.

“Most of the senior Government figures I meet have been former generals in the SPLA and the question then becomes, ‘at what point do you get non-SPLA military becoming dominant?’ Inevitably that will happen as time advances, but right now these people who have spent their whole lives fighting in the bush believe it is their right to lead the country.”

Shearer was frustrated at his New York briefing because everything was presented in a pessimistic and negative way. After a couple of days, he told them he had had enough. Instead, he wanted to know about the opportunities because “there are always opportunities in places like this”.

Like? Just last week he headed off in a helicopter entourage to Bor, 200km north of Juba where ground intelligence had indicated “war” was about to break out between two tribal factions. He checked in with the defence minister before he left, received a blessing of sorts and landed to find thousands ready to hear what he had to say on behalf of his advisers. Then it was on to the other protagonists at nearby Pibor for the same message.

The result: a delay, at least, in hostilities. Both sides agreed to join UN staff in a meeting this week where hopefully the central issues will be resolved and a peace settlement of sorts nutted out.

But everyone will keep their fingers crossed because, as Shearer says, “they might still go to war!”

“This is not me flying in to save the day. As I landed, paramount chiefs, governors and, sadly, women who had lost kids and husbands were there to meet me… I act as a sort of circuit breaker, and my role brings with it a degree of gravitas that helps to push things along.”

The real credit, he says, goes to the staff on the ground who work their way through a vast collection of intelligence (“we call it information”) and then decide how issues should be tackled.

“That sort of work can save hundreds of lives because it stops conflict in the first place. That will never get any headlines – prevention never will. But it is terrific work. Tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, are alive today because of what we are doing.”

Africa is suddenly back in the headlines with UN warnings of severe famine. The sad images of children with protruding ribs and that lost look in their eyes will soon be part of our television news diet again.

For South Sudan, the real despair is a few months off (crop planting is in the April rainy season and harvesting is in June/July) but it is certainly coming because the crops won’t be there to harvest.

Shearer puts it this way: “Conflict here is normally relatively local…. Soldiers rape, houses are burnt, there’s looting and people flee. So they become displaced. Currently one-third of the country is displaced – 1.5 million outside, mainly to Uganda, and two million inside, 10 per cent of them to our camps.

“When you displace agriculture and subsistence living you take people away from their livelihood and how they feed themselves and they immediately become vulnerable and depend on you.

“…In the south-west at Yambio, the food basket of the country where the fertile soil allows two crops a year to be grown, the SPLA has gone into town, burnt a lot of houses in retaliation against rebel groups who have been fighting them and people have fled. The town is now a third of what it used to be and two-thirds of the people have left. It’s not just them displaced – it’s not producing food for the whole of South Sudan.

“This year we [the UN mission] will be feeding close to half of the country’s population.”

Those lucky enough to get that support may even live to enjoy a peaceful future. But no one is giving any guarantees. Meanwhile, prepare yourself for the haunting images as you tuck into your dinner.

Sudan: A snapshot

Sudan was a British colony until after the Second World War and then reinvented as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. It became an independent republic in 1956 but tensions between the north and south made for an uncomfortable existence through coups and civil war.

In July 2011, South Sudan and its 12 million citizens across 64 tribes became an independent nation under the democratically-elected man who still leads them, President Salva Kiir Mayardit.

In the six years before independence, South Sudan was an autonomous region of the Republic of Sudan and Kiir was its president.

Since independence, however – and, really, for decades before – there has been no sense of unity between the two territories, with tribal factions at each other’s throats. Rebel groups in most of the south states have kept tensions high in a civil war that has cost up to 300,000 lives, with 3.5 million people forced to move from their home territory, many to neighbouring countries.

President Kiir maintains his hold on power through his Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), dominated by fellow members of the Dinka tribe who make up 35 per cent of the South Sudan population. He sacked deputy Riek Machar in 2013, accusing him of attempting a coup.

The threat of UN sanctions in 2015 brought a peace agreement and found Kiir and Machar back together. But within months, it was all over again. A fresh outbreak of violence in Juba last year saw the president sack his deputy, who promptly fled the country and now bides his time in South Africa, presumably waiting for the opportunity to make a play for the leadership.

If President Kiir is to move on, coups rather than the democratic process may decide his future and, even though the peace-keeping mission is entrusted to support Kiir, achieving two-way trust will continue to be difficult.

Coming Wednesday is part two: Life in the compound

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