When Gloria Soma left university in Tanzania in 2013, she decided to head for the homeland she had never really known. Her parents had left southern Sudan in the early 1990s and she had grown up in refugee camps overseas, first in Uganda during the “hard times” of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and then in Kenya. While she was immersed in her studies, the Republic of South Sudan was born, the 193rd country to join the UN. And she wanted to go.
“It was quite exciting for me because I thought that … I would go back and there were going to be many opportunities and it would be a peaceful place for everyone to live in,” says Soma. “There was already some sense of belonging. Because, as much as I had stayed most of my life in the east African region, there’d always been [the question of] ‘where do you belong?’ There was that bit of me [that felt] ‘finally, we are going to belong somewhere’. But it didn’t happen.”
Ten years ago on Friday, on a hot and heady day, tens of thousands of people gathered in the city of Juba alongside foreign dignitaries and the UN secretary general to watch the flag of Sudan being lowered and the flag of South Sudan raised. Dressed in his trademark black cowboy hat, Salva Kiir, former rebel leader turned politician, was sworn in as president. A man dressed as the Statue of Liberty held a sign that read: “Free at last. Republic of South Sudan.”
Except, as Soma says, it didn’t quite work out like that.
The decade that followed independence has been dominated by civil war and human rights abuses on a vast scale, to the point that a member of the UN commission on human rights in South Sudan said in 2019: “Impunity is so entrenched in South Sudan that every kind of norm is broken.” The war, which raged from 2013 until 2018, has now given way to a fragile peace marred by bouts of conflict, economic crisis and an uneasy sense of permanent instability.
Soma says: “One of my greatest fears living in South Sudan is that you mentally have to prepare your head that any moment, any time, anything could go wrong. I don’t feel safe … There’s always that sense of fear.”
Soma, 32, is director of the Titi Foundation, a Juba-based NGO focused on women and children in a country where one in 10 infants are not expected to reach their fifth birthday, where sexual violence against women and girls is endemic, and where, this year, 1.4 million children are expected to suffer acute malnutrition, the highest number since 2013. So there is no shortage of work.
More than 70% of the Titi staff are women, the result of a deliberate strategy that Soma longs to see replicated across society and at the highest echelons of political leadership. “Women in South Sudan, for a very long time, have been marginalised and thought to be second-class citizens who cannot deliver,” she says, arguing that this attitude is not only wrong but is holding the country back: “It leaves out ideas for innovations that women would have brought to the table if given the opportunity.”
The inspiration for setting up Titi came to Soma in 2016, when, as a civil servant at the central bank, she was confronted for the first time with the realities of war. In July of that year, when fighting between troops loyal to Kiir and soldiers who supported the vice-president, Riek Machar, exploded on to the streets of Juba, she opened up her family’s compound to hundreds of women and children to shelter from the violence. Over the next few days she heard their stories: of rape, murder, abduction; of forced displacement on a massive scale; and also, she recalls, of weary, trauma-inured acceptance. “They kept telling us, ‘it’s going to be fine’. We were like, ‘how can it be fine? This is not normal’.”
When she finally ventured out into Juba after a ceasefire “the entire road was basically dead bodies. You just smelled fresh blood. It was crazy for us, because personally I had never witnessed that, but that was the reality.” Soma’s first instinct then was to take her two children and get out of South Sudan. She acknowledges that she is extremely privileged to have been able to leave the country.
But after three months in Kampala, Uganda, she began to feel uneasy. “I was just not comfortable with what I’d left behind. And that was what triggered me. I said, you know what? I’m going to go back and I’m hoping I will be able to contribute in my own little way. And that’s how the foundation started.”
As her country faces a tangle of interrelated problems, from climate crisis and Covid to resurgent conflict and, in some places, near-famine, Soma is determined to push on. Through Titi she is able to tackle a range of issues, from basic humanitarian needs, such as food insecurity and child nutrition, to more ambitious projects to reduce gender-based violence and boost female employment. Titi’s efforts to help women maintain hygiene amid the pandemic – through supplies of food, soap and clean water – are supported by Cafod.
But her sense of frustration with the national political leadership and the international community is palpable; the former for so completely squandering the hopes of 2011, and the latter for not doing enough to prevent it.
As South Sudan moves fitfully towards peace, it needs to embark on a process of healing, she says, to confront the trauma that exists in people’s consciousness. At the moment there is nowhere near enough accountability for any healing, she warns, citing the example of Bentiu, the capital of Northern Liech state, where in 2018 Médecins Sans Frontières reported that 125 women and girls were raped in a 10-day frenzy of violence. Survivors also reported being whipped, beaten and clubbed with rifle butts. Local officials disputed the accounts, and according to Soma no one has been convicted.
“To this date we have challenges ensuring that these individuals get justice,” she says, speaking from Kampala where she is on maternity leave, expecting her fourth child. “We need some kind of a ‘safe hub’ where these [survivors] can come out into the open and have the conversation.”
The scourge of sexual violence is still ever-present, she says. The Titi Foundation is now working with other women’s rights organisations to push for more prosecutions of those accused of abuses against women and girls. “Yes, it has been a slow process,” she says, “but since 2018 to date we’ve been able to follow up on such cases and [convict] about 56 perpetrators. Our target is to prosecute about 500, so that people get to see the realities and the degree of atrocities committed. Our hope is that by doing this we’re also able to bring in some peace of mind for the victims.”
Does she retain any hope for the future of her country, which in its short life has seen so much suffering? The answer is a very qualified “yes”. “I’m optimistic,” she says, “but only if we begin having everyone accommodated within these spaces to have conversations. We need people to heal in order for us to move forward. Unfortunately, at the moment everything is quite fractured … So how does that get to be healed? How do we rectify such mistakes that the current leadership has created? It’s going to take some time, in my opinion a very long time, before that can happen.”
‘We just sleep and hope we don’t perish’: 2m in Tigray in urgent need of food – UN | Hunger
At least 2 million people in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray are suffering from an extreme lack of food, with the 15-month conflict between rebel and government forces pushing families to the brink, the UN’s emergency food agency has found.
In the first comprehensive assessment the World Food Programme (WFP) has carried out in Tigray since the start of the war, 37% of the population were found to be severely food insecure, meaning they had at times run out of food and gone a day or more without eating.
Families were found to be “exhausting all means to feed themselves”, with 13% of Tigrayan children under five and almost two-thirds of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition.
“Before the conflict we were eating three times a day but now even once a day is difficult. I was borrowing food from my family but now they have run out. We just sleep and hope we do not perish,” Kiros, a single mother of six children living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Mekelle, told researchers.
The assessment, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 980 households in accessible parts of Tigray, was carried out from mid-November until mid-December.
However, researchers were unable to travel to areas where fighting is impeding humanitarian access. Moreover, since the assessment was carried out, the needs of the region are thought to have become even more acute as no aid convoy has reached Tigray for about six weeks.
“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.
“WFP is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”
Across northern Ethiopia, where fighting has raged in the regions of Afar and Amhara as well as Tigray, WFP estimates that 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.
In Amhara, hunger has more than doubled in five months, it says. In Afar, where fighting has intensified in recent days between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces loyal to the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recent health screening data showed malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28%, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15%.
Since the conflict erupted in November 2020, it has been difficult for the UN and other humanitarian organisations to gauge the level of need in Tigray due to a lack of on-the-ground access and telecommunications. The UN has accused the federal government of preventing food and essential medical supplies from coming into the region in a de-facto blockade. The government denies this.
On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Mekelle since last September. The drugs are understood to have included enough insulin supplies to last about a month, after medics at the Ayder referral hospital raised the alarm over severe shortages.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, recently accused Abiy’s government of imposing a “hell” on Tigray by denying entry to medical supplies.
“It is a huge relief that this first shipment is reaching hospitals,” said Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia. “This assistance is a lifeline for thousands of people, and I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that these deliveries continue.”
Asylum applications on rise in EU
The EU Agency for Asylum on Friday said the number of asylum applications in November 2021 was the second-highest in five years, narrowly below the level in September. About 71,400 applications for international protection were lodged in the “EU+” (EU, plus Norway and Switzerland) in November 2021, up by nine percent from October. “This was the second-highest level since 2016,” it said.
Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion
Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.
“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.
Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.
On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.
A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.
The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.
After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.
Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.
Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.
Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.
While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.
“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.
The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.
According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.
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