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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle