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Southern Sudanese Boomtown Still Faces Challenges


In the three years since the government in Khartoum signed a peace deal with southern rebels to end two decades of civil war in Sudan, the southern capital of Juba has prospered, thanks to a flood of money from international aid agencies and foreign investors. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from Juba, much of the wealth has yet to improve the lives of ordinary people there.

A whirling generator in front of Victor's Hardware Store in downtown Juba drowns out the noise of customers jammed shoulder-to-shoulder inside, shopping for everything from plumbing accessories to canvas sheets.

For Victor Boulos Assad, who has owned the store for nearly 30 years, things have never been as hectic or as profitable.

"Definitely, the business is much better now," said Assad. "In general here, you can see that things are going ahead."

Assad points to a new bank that has just opened across the street. The bank is one of dozens of newly-built structures, including western-style hotels, bars and restaurants, which dot the landscape of a town that for decades had served as a war-ravaged outpost for troops loyal to the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

In 2005, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement rebels signed a peace deal with the North that ended 21 years of civil war and granted autonomy to the mostly Christian and animist south.

International aid agencies poured into south Sudan's new capital Juba, establishing it as a hub for projects aimed at helping the state recover from decades of war and chronic underdevelopment. Dozens of American, European, Chinese, and Arab companies followed on the heels of the agencies - some to support the needs of the aid agencies and others eager to tap into the south's vast oil and mineral resources.

On Juba's narrow dirt roads, expensive four-wheel drive vehicles compete for space with motorbikes and enormous trucks carrying consumer products and material from Khartoum and neighboring countries Uganda and Kenya.

Life-long Juba resident, 64 year-old Benjamin Lobida, says the boomtown atmosphere has prompted tens of thousands of southerners, who had fled to the North or went overseas during the war, to also come to Juba and look for jobs.

"Now, Juba is full of cars, market is full of food," said Lobida. "Before, people were not many. But now, there are so many people."

But high expectations have turned into bitter disappointment for many Sudanese, who lack employable skills. Unable to compete for jobs with better educated workers from Kenya and Uganda, many returnees and newly-arrived families have been forced to eke out a living in sprawling slums, which have sprouted across Juba in recent years.

Although Juba is the most developed town in southern Sudan, it still lacks even the most basic infrastructure, including water and sewage systems. For now, the Sudanese live in neighborhoods, which are little more than a breeding ground for cholera and other diseases.

Doddie Edmonds is a British healthcare worker, who has worked in southern Sudan for the past several years. Maneuvering her car through teeth-rattling potholes in downtown Juba, she agrees that the arrival of foreigners have transformed the town, but not necessarily for the better.

"Life has not changed much for these guys in two-three years, has it? They are still sitting on the side of the road, trying to sell a mango. The rubbish has increased amazingly - all the plastic bottles, plastic bags. Also, the aggression, actually. I think the people are feeling a bit impatient and wanting to see some changes for themselves," said Edmonds.

Recently, that impatience has been appearing in the form of armed robberies and lootings by gangs, who have largely targeted foreign-owned hotels, housing compounds, and offices.

In the past two months, almost two dozen compounds and offices belonging to UN, non-governmental organizations, and private companies have been attacked and robbed by men often wearing military uniforms. That has led to speculation that the thieves may be unpaid southern soldiers or disgruntled former militia members.

The police force in Juba is not fully trained and organized and has been able to offer little help to the expatriate community.

Although no foreigner has been killed in the attacks, the rising crime is forcing aid agencies to reduce their staff in Juba, build higher walls around their compounds, and install security measures that threaten to distance them from the very people they are supposed to assist.

Rising taxes, government red tape, and lingering mistrust between officials in the north and south are also dampening the enthusiasm of some foreign companies, which are now reconsidering the amount they want to invest here.

Hardware store owner, Victor Boulos Assad, says he believes many foreigners arrived in Juba, underestimating the challenges they would face.

"Everyone comes to Juba saying it is a gold mine," said Assad. "But sometimes, they may find silver, not gold."

Under the terms of the 2005 peace accord, a referendum on independence from the North will be held in three years. But it is far from clear if Juba's transformation from a poor garrison town to an international capital will be complete by then.

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