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Veterans, Widows of South Sudan’s Liberation War Accuse Government of Neglect

FILE PHOTO - In this photo taken on July 9, 2011, residents of Juba in South Sudan celebrate in the streets the birth of their new nation. South Sudan marked a decade of independence on July 9.

When South Sudan gained independence ten years ago, the new nation’s constitution required the government to support those deeply impacted by the secession conflict. But some of those disabled war veterans and the widows and orphans of those killed say Juba has fallen short on that promise.

The civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, left thousands in desperate need of welfare, health care and education — and the perceived lack of these essentials has left some embittered.

One is SPLA veteran Chol Ayom, 55, who lost his right leg in the independence struggle and describes his feelings of being let down after dodging bullets.

“We didn’t lose heart and kept fighting because we wanted freedom and liberty for our people,” he told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus, adding “What I cannot explain well now is what happened after we achieved the goal.”

Another is 50-year-old Mary Dook, who lost her SPLA soldier husband during the 21-year war. Now, she told VOA, she struggles to raise her children on little or no government support.

“The orphans and widows have been completely forgotten … by those now managing the country,” she said.

Dook says that if those who died fighting for liberation “knew that this would happen to their families after giving their lives … I think many of them would have left the struggle.”

FILE PHOTO - In this photo taken on July 09, 2011, the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir waves the newly signed constitution of his country for the crowd to see during a ceremony in the capital Juba to celebrate South Sudan's independence.
FILE PHOTO - In this photo taken on July 09, 2011, the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir waves the newly signed constitution of his country for the crowd to see during a ceremony in the capital Juba to celebrate South Sudan's independence.

She noted the 10th anniversary of South Sudan’s founding with irony, calling on President Salva Kiir not to “forget his colleagues who sacrificed their lives for the good of the country.” She added: “Are we widows and orphans expected to celebrate? What would we celebrate when we are still suffering?”

War widow Awur Chol Adol lost her husband a year after the secession fight began in 1983. At the time, she says she believed his sacrifice would provide her children with a better education and health care, and while she still supports the liberation fight, help for her and others has not been there.

She also says words of support for her and others like her ring hollow.

“Talking to the widows and orphans and telling them all the sweet words in rallies all the time is not what we need,” she said. “We need good schools for our children, we need good hospitals, we need business training centers for the widows.”

Adol told South Sudan in Focus that she keeps her family fed with a second-hand clothing business she started in order to survive.

The problems and perceived neglect suffered by the disabled and war survivors are highlighted by civil rights activist Bol Deng Bol, with the advocacy group INTREPID South Sudan.

“The disabled community was not even heard, and they were not represented when the government was being formed. There was no mention of them in the ministries, in the commissions and all of them,” Bol said. “If you look at the ministries, you see no representation, so they are so marginalized, and all of this is the government to blame. If you cannot include them in the government or in the decision making, then why not provide them with basic services?”

South Sudan Episcopal Bishop Reverend James Deng Akeer has added his voice, saying these vulnerable people need to be heard and helped by the government.

“In any level of leadership,” he said, “if the people under you are crying, it is your responsibility to listen to their cry, and if there is something at all you need to do, (then) do it.”

In 2015, South Sudan’s Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs created a pension program to support the families of those who died. That same year, the national parliament held a hearing on a bill to improve the welfare those families. The “Martyrs’ Family Fund Bill” was presented to parliament but never brought up for a vote.

Three years ago, President Kiir said that government inaction to help widows, war veterans, and others from the independence struggle was “a mistake” and apologized to those affected. Kiir also asked them to be patient.

“Fellow citizens, as your leaders we are likewise happy to receive and act on your concerns when presented in a constructive manner. We consider your inputs as a crucial guide for us as we implement the revitalized agreement,” Kiir said.

But despite those words, the casualties of the struggle for independence say Juba still isn’t fully listening or acting on what is being said.