Government and opposition forces endure difficult living conditions at Maridi training center
A young soldier wearing a simple singlet and shorts stands proudly to attention amidst fellow troops at morning parade.
But he soon struggles to maintain his upright posture, clutching his stomach and bending over, as heavy coughing wracks his body. He’s not alone in his suffering. A chorus of coughing can be heard amongst the dozens of troops lined up for inspection.
These South Sudanese soldiers are among more than 1400 members of government and opposition forces who have come together at a training site in Maridi where they are being reunited in a joint security force as part of a peace deal signed by the warring parties in 2018.
These former foes are highly motivated. Despite having spent almost six years fighting each other in the bushes of Western Equatoria, they now jog, chant and parade together as a team.
They are also tackling the challenges they face together by sharing the little food that they have and finding wood and grass to build their own temporary shelters.
They are looking forward to putting war behind them and moving forward towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.
“We have been combined in one place. Now we are one soldiering force,” said a member of the new joint protection force, Silvia Isaac Barnaba. “You look to your left and your right and you see your brother and sister. We have no problems, no tribalism. We are South Sudanese.”
While the troops are committed to the reunification process, there certainly are significant problems at the site. There is very little food available. The soldiers, along with many women and children who have moved to the center with them, are sleeping out in the open. Some don’t even have blankets. There is also a lack of medicine to treat those who are sick.
A patrol of peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan travelled to the site to assess the situation.
“The conditions are not ideal. There is no shelter. They are having to start building small tukuls (huts) in which to live,” said UNMISS’ Head of the Field Office in nearby Yambio, Christopher Muchiri Murenga. “There is a very, very high risk of pneumonia because of the cold that they are suffering in. There are not enough expectorants or antibiotics that have been provided.”
Training is yet to be officially launched at the site, but instructors are keeping the troops busy by giving them physical exercise and some orientation about how to forget the past and work together as one force.
“We are putting them together. We have mixed them – one from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition and one from the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces. They sit together. They talk together. They eat together. They sleep together,” said Chief Instructor, Ayok Lier. “So, we are building cooperation among ourselves.”
The enthusiasm of the troops is evident, but the lack of basic services is limiting their ability to successfully merge into a professional force capable of protecting the citizens of South Sudan and building a better future for themselves and their country.