The flag of South Sudan was raised at the UN for the first time in July 2011. Photo: Getty
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“This is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman”

Three years on from the signing of the peace agreement in South Sudan, the heady optimism has disappeared.

“To have your own home is a feeling of freedom”, smiled Martha, one of many hopeful refugees I met who made the journey home after South Sudan declared independence in 2011.

Ten years ago I was amongst the small, apprehensive crowd who watched the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It was a privilege to be there. Many doubted they would see that day, let alone the historic events of 9 July 2011 when the world witnessed the birth of the world’s newest nation. I looked around the small group: everyone was silent, some people were actually holding their breath. On that momentous day all the troubles from the decades of violence that preceded it were forgotten as the people of South Sudan united in eager, hopeful anticipation.

“I will be so happy when I have my own home. When I am settled I will be able to start my life again,” Martha had said so excitedly.

Fast forward less than three years and that heady optimism has disappeared. CARE International’s Head of our South Sudan office describes a nightmarish, “soul-destroying” situation unparalleled in her 20 year career. We are witnessing a country, so recently awash with hope, plunge into a situation where nearly seven million South Sudanese are facing the awful prospect of displacement or severe hunger even to the point of starvation. Having worked directly with some of the communities affected by the crisis over many years I naturally feel pain when I see what they are struggling against now.

Since conflict broke out in December between the government and opposition, a million people have fled their homes within South Sudan, finding shelter in the bush or in the perceived safety of United Nations compounds across the country. Thousands have been killed, we have seen a wave of violent attacks, rapes and fighting that have plunged the fledgling country into chaos and led its people to the brink of a catastrophic food crisis.

And the world has just been watching, albeit aghast. As with Ethiopia and then later with Rwanda, the outside world seems to be caught in the headlights of a complex and volatile situation. This time the price of inaction could be extremely high. We know from experience that prevention costs much less than a full-blown emergency response.

Amidst the chaos, an insidious, lesser-known evil is growing: sexual violence and exploitation. Research being released by CARE ahead of William Hague and Angelina Jolie’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict shows that the escalation in the conflict has been accompanied by a rise in sexual violence, largely but not exclusively against women and girls, and our experience tells us this situation will worsen if the conflict continues. There is still time to prevent the worst from happening. The world must respond.

My colleague who heads up our mission in South Sudan told me how the impact of the conflict on women and girls has been particularly horrifying: women tied up, raped and then shot; women attacked in hospitals and churches where they had fled seeking safety with their families. There seems to be no safe place for a woman today in South Sudan.

Women are selling themselves for sex in exchange for access to drinking water for themselves and their families. Families are offering their young daughters as child brides in order to feed their other children. One woman we interviewed referred to another woman who had been raped as “lucky”, because it could have been worse – other women were raped and then killed.

In the face of the overwhelming need in South Sudan, the issue of sexual violence might not seem the most pressing need. However sexual violence is a symptom of a broader societal malaise that has never been properly addressed. If the violence does not stop, the repercussions of unpunished rapes and assaults will undermine and haunt the South Sudanese for years. We have seen this in other conflicts around the world.

We are responding with support to over 40 health clinics across the country, including in the areas worst affected by the fighting, providing first aid, food and water alongside maternal health services But it is a fraction of what is needed.  $1.27bn is needed now to prevent the worst, but barely more than a third of that has been raised. On top of this, we are calling for critical funding to provide support for survivors of gender-based violence.

As the world’s attention is stretched by other crises and world events, the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit is a tangible opportunity to help South Sudan’s most vulnerable in a time of extreme need. If we act now, we can prevent the very worst and signal real intent to support the people of South Sudan back on to a more hopeful path.

John Plastow is Programme Director and Acting CEO for CARE International UK. The Foreign Secretary and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will co-chair the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict on 10-13 June 2014 at ExCel London. CARE International sits on Hague’s steering group on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and will be hosting two events at the summit.

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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”