The bullet hole is high on the whitewashed wall of what is, in other respects, a perfectly normal conference room, the kind you might find in a UNICEF office anywhere in the world. But to the staff of UNICEF’s Malakal office, the broken plaster – and its ricochet in the frame of a map on the opposite wall – is a stark reminder of the challenges they face. Report by Simon Ingram. MALAKAL, Southern Sudan, 19 May 2011
Come 9 July, when Southern Sudan gains independence, they will be close to a brand-new international border between Sudan and its newborn neighbour.
A month ago, armed militia clashes killed more than 40 people here and left their mark on the UNICEF office. For now, an edgy calm has returned to Malakal. The capital of Upper Nile state, Malakal sits about mid-way between Khartoum (some 700 km to the north) and Juba, the capital-in-waiting of the future state of South Sudan.
The area suffered heavily during decades of intermittent civil war that ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Six years on, Upper Nile remains isolated and under-developed. Indicators for infant and maternal mortality, school enrolment and sanitation are among Sudan’s lowest.
New paediatric wing offers hope
It’s a situation with grim implications for young mothers like 18-year-old Fatina. Four weeks ago, she brought her severely malnourished son, Manjok, to Malakal’s paediatric hospital fearing for his life.
Today, Manjok and his mother occupy a bed inside the hospital’s crumbling main building, and his condition is much improved. Some of the other children in the ward appear weaker, with feeding tubes taped to their noses and a vacant look in their eyes. The ward’s overhead fans hang idly in the oppressive midday heat, without any electricity to turn them.
But just across a courtyard, there’s a glimpse of a more hopeful future for Malakal’s children. A new two-story paediatric wing is under construction, funded in part by UNICEF. State Minister of Health H.E Stephen Lor Nyak says it will be ready for opening on 9 July.
“We really appreciate UNICEF’s support in improving the hospital infrastructure,” Mr. Lor Nyak told UNICEF’s visiting Director of Emergency Operations, Louis-George Arsenault. “We hope that UNICEF will continue to work with the government to improve the delivery of health services for children,” he added.
Planning for the long term
State officials worry that the strain on Malakal’s slender health-care system and other services may soon increase. Since January, when the population of Southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly to break away from the rest of the country, some 45,000 people have returned to Upper Nile from Khartoum and the north, according to deputy State Governor Anderia Maya. Many more could soon be on the way.
“Every year, we have to deal with emergencies,” said Mr. Maya, “but we don’t have the nurses, teachers or other services to cater for their basic needs.”
UNICEF has run operations out of Malakal since 1994. Its staff works with the government and other partners across three states – Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei – implementing a full range of health, nutrition, water and sanitation, child protection, HIV/AIDS and education programmes.
But the obstacles are immense. Insecurity and violence of the type that has descended on Malakal several times in 2011 often makes it impossible to take supplies and services to more inaccessible communities. The task is harder still during the rainy season, when unpaved roads become a quagmire for months at a time. Moreover, the region is heavily dependent on imports of food and other essential goods from the north.
“These are exciting times to be in Sudan, but the challenges are not to be under-estimated,” Mr. Arsenault said, pointing out that UNICEF has a long history in the country. “We need to prioritize our activities, ensure we have supplies where we need them and plan for the long term.”