JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
When South Sudan gained independence three years ago, millions returned or traveled home for the first time to help build their nation. But many quickly learned the challenges were more difficult than anticipated. With political conflict and violence persisting for the last seven months, a number of South Sudanese are doubting their own future and that of their country.
Mer Ayang sits in a cafe in Juba - wearing short hair, an orange sun dress and long golden earrings. In 2010, she came to South Sudan to vote for independence. She feels nostalgic about that time.
"It was an amazing experience. It was a highlight for many South Sudanese, the referendum time. People came from everywhere to vote for the first time, for their country, for independence," said Ayang.
The 28-year-old was raised in Khartoum, Sudan, and studied in South Africa. She came to Juba to help establish the national archives at the Ministry of Culture. She discovered what she had to offer was not wanted.
"I was frustrated of not being able to serve my country to the fullest skill that I have, which is a situation that many young men and women are going through. So many people coming from different places. It is either you get corrupted to get your things done or you have a connection or a relative or something. And nobody cares what you know or what you can do. It is about who you know and how much you have, kind of thing. And I was naive about that, very naive about that in the beginning," recalled Ayang.
Ayang voiced her frustration through music. After gaining some popularity in an East African singing contest on TV, she recorded the single 'Southern Sudanese' about the problem of tribalism. It became a local hit.
A future in music seemed possible. But in December, the country's two largest ethnic groups started fighting, killing thousands and displacing 1.5 million people. Ayang said she lost seven cousins and fled with her family to neighboring Uganda for a time. She came back a few months ago but can't see a future right now.
"I am literally, currently, very, somehow numb emotionally. People are trying to do something. But, like, I am literally not doing anything. I want to reflect on the situation and somehow reach discernment within myself of what I can do and how I can do it effectively," said Ayang.
Behind Juba's basketball stadium stands the house of Akuja de Garang. She left southern Sudan in the early 1980s, grew up and studied in Britain and came back in 2004. In 2012, she started the Festival For Fashion & Arts For Peace, a fashion show to promote local designers and artists from South Sudan's different regions and foster cultural dialogue.
De Garang could not believe it when the new conflict started in December after a nearly 40-year fight for independence from Sudan.
"What are we going to say to our grandchildren? What did we do with this country that we fought for so hard and lots of people have died and lives have been basically completely changed? And now we are letting ourselves go back to that again because two, three of us are not agreeing?" said De Garang.
The 39-year-old said that some of the artists from Jonglei and Upper Nile states she worked with have been displaced. She has lost contact. But despite the conflict, she plans to stage her festival this August, the third since independence.
"We are still moving on with our plans, with our life. We cannot stop. I mean yes, it is that, sometimes at the beginning we felt like we were in limbo, particularly in January, yeah. And the thing we told to ourselves: What's the option? To start a whole new life in East Africa or you know? No, that was not an option for us. We said we are going back. We are carrying on and with the hope, with the hope that of course we cannot, nothing is guaranteed. But we cannot stop living," she said.
De Garang said she believes cultural dialogue is now more urgent than ever and she and her husband are not thinking of leaving any time soon.
Thousands of other South Sudanese are facing similar choices. Only time will tell what the majority decides.