Here in crowded camps in South Sudan, former enemies are meant to be joining forces after a five-year civil war so they can help the shattered country recover. But they can barely find enough food.
The Associated Press spoke to women, both former rebel fighters and government troops, who are among tens of thousands of people being trained as a unified security force. It's meant to be a major step in the 2018 peace deal ending the war that killed nearly 400,000 people.
Visits to a handful of camps found squalid conditions, with food supplies expired or stolen by corruption. With few sanitary products available, the women use random pieces of cloth, even strips of bedsheets, for their periods.
While some seek informal work in nearby communities to get by, the threat of sexual assault — even by male trainees — makes others wary of venturing too far.
“I’m describing the situation as disgusting,” said Nyaluel Makuei. The 36-year-old mother of seven said she has dedicated her life to serving her country, but she finds little support now.
“Even if you get a piece of soap you still stink and smell bad," she said. “Some of our sisters left the center because of that situation.” At times, she said, meals are just porridge mixed with salt to satisfy hunger because the camp’s supply of beans turned rancid.
The women who once fought on opposing sides now identify themselves as members of South Sudan’s unified force, an effort to leave their past behind. But they are reminded of their country’s persistent troubles — insecurity, graft, poverty — at every turn.
Some in the international community warn that South Sudan’s implementation of the peace deal is in peril. A United Nations panel of experts this year said the training camps host far fewer people than the goal of 83,000, and government soldiers make up a “significantly smaller percentage” than former rebel fighters.
Most government forces remain in barracks elsewhere. “Many key commanders instructed their forces to remain outside of the security reunification process, retain their weapons and stand ready to re-engage in active fighting,” the U.N report said.
Instruction in the training camps is limited to “basic moral orientation, rather than any substantive military training,” it added.
Meanwhile, vicious intercommunal fighting in parts of South Sudan has killed hundreds of people this year. A well-trained, properly provisioned security force is needed.
“I am acutely aware that the peace implementation remains painfully slow and far below your expectations,” President Salva Kiir said last month.
At the Toufigia police training center in Malakal, which hosts more than 3,000 people, women reported selling tea or making charcoal to find money to survive.
Veronica Akiij, 41, said she decided to work as a tea lady to support her family. Awin Deng, 39, said she stayed up at night baking bread to sell. She hopes to be part of the first batch of police officers to graduate from training but has seven children to support.
“We are tired of this situation,” said Nyakuma Oyen, 25.
During a recent tour of the training sites, Defense Minister Angelina Teny acknowledged the challenges. “It is not your fault, because 1,000 South Sudanese pounds ($7) cannot buy you a sack of flour. The situation is forcing you to do that,” she said of the informal work.
South Sudan’s civil war largely destroyed the health system and other basic services, leaving women especially exposed. Human rights groups and medical charities reported many women were raped after going out to find water or wood.
That threat remains, even for the trainees.
At the Panyier training center in Bor, which hosts more than 1,800 people, nurse Monica Achol Agwang said she has examined many cases of sexual assault.
“Some get pregnant and experience a miscarriage during training in the field,” the 38-year-old said. Transferring women to town for proper treatment is difficult, with poorly constructed roads and frequent flooding.
Dozens of people have HIV, an alarming rate, she said. And yet there isn’t enough medicine even for other sexually transmitted diseases.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived. Abul Malual, a 29-year-old mother of five who arrived at the training center in January, said people are sleeping 10 to a tent meant to house six people.
That’s on top of the indignity of asking for sanitary pads and receiving none. And food supplies have been erratic for months, Malual said.
The head of the Panyier training center, Brig. Gen. John Aciek Ajith, accused the government’s Joint Transitional Security Committee of not delivering needed aid since June. He has requested help from other military divisions.
But Maj. Gen. Chol Martin with the military’s Division 8 said his soldiers are no longer receiving their salaries and most have started to support themselves by fishing or selling charcoal.
He said he tries to help by allowing them to sell food from the storeroom. Most of the food is expired, Martin said, and yet some soldiers eat it, making them ill.
The co-chair of the Joint Transitional Security Committee, Gen. Wesley Welebe Samson, said the blame for the lack of support lay elsewhere, including with the Joint Defense Board, the country's highest security command.
“Our mission regularly has been seized by others who are looking for food and medical supplies,” he said. Contracts for supplies are signed by the government’s National Transitional Committee and “we are not involved.”
There are now more than 47,000 trainees across South Sudan, Samson said.
“These are human beings. They need to eat. The stores are supposed to be full of food,” he said. He confirmed that most trainees leave the centers to find food elsewhere.
At the Kaljak police training center in Bentiu, which hosts some 3,000 people, women reported much of the same — little food, no medicines, no soap or sanitary pads. Some forage for green leaves to eat.
“Our situation is horrible,” said Mary Stephanose, 37.
Others are pregnant. A 30-year-old who gave only her first name, Mary, said she is in her sixth month but rarely has the chance for a checkup. “I cannot even attend the training or stand well because I feel dizzy,” she said.
Some trainees stood for portraits, wearing flip-flops, their pregnancies swelling their cloth wraps. Few uniforms were in sight.