A man wearing a t-shirt to promote voting in the referendum passes a child on the way to school in Mundri, South Sudan, a week before the country gained independence.

A man wearing a t-shirt promoting voting in the referencum passes a child on the way to school in Mundri, South Sudan, days before the country gained independence from the north in July 2011. Photo: Simon Murphy

The world is about to witness the birth of its newest country. It is a fascinating thought that by the end of this week a new land and a new people will come into existence. The South Sudanese will finally be able to say officially what they have felt throughout decades of civil war: that they are their own people on their own land – the Republic of South Sudan.

With the eyes of the world focused on Libya and Syria, the human suffering in Sudan goes largely unnoticed. The country as a whole belongs to the poorest places on earth, but the southern half is responsible for the most dramatic figures. Three quarters of the population in the north can read and write, compared with just 1 in 3 in the south. In health care, the statistics aren’t better: 85 per cent of one-year-olds in the north is immunized against measles, in the south it is barely 20 per cent. Almost 40 per cent of the northern population has access to improved sanitation facilities; in the south this is just 6 per cent. And the list goes on.

However shocking the numbers, without hearing about the humanitarian implications, they are just that – numbers. My aim in South Sudan was to turn the statistics into stories, to give the numbers a face. Seeing extreme poverty is not something you ever get used to. All books in the world cannot prepare you for human suffering right in front of your eyes.

A farmer working his land on crutches because he lost one leg when he stepped on a landmine. A woman who had a miscarriage after her violent husband repeatedly kicked her in the belly. A young boy affected by river blindness crying in silence because he cannot go to school. An old, fragile lady living under a tree in a leprosy colony.

Spending time with some of the poorest people in South Sudan has made me realise how enormous the task ahead really is. ‘Starting from scratch’ has never applied more to a new country. Its first-ever government consists of former armed rebels whose guerrilla practices most likely won’t have adequately prepared them for life as a democratic politician. The only major source of income -oil- is at the same time a source for more conflict, as the south is dependent on the north for its pipelines and distribution.

“Experts are talking of a ‘pre-failed state’: a country that is collapsed before it has even come into existence.”

In a country the size of the United Kingdom and Germany combined, there is only 25 miles of tarmac road, mainly in the capital Juba. Many places have no access to clean drinking water; there is no public health care and very little education. Even though the climate is good for agriculture, South Sudan relies on neighbouring countries for all its food. There is no industry -other than a bottled water factory and a brewery owned by South Africans- and there are no rights for some of the country’s most vulnerable, including people with disabilities and victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The recent fighting in the disputed oil-rich border areas is alarming and the human suffering remains huge. Experts are talking of a ‘pre-failed state’: a country that is collapsed before it has even come into existence. Adding up the figures, you can see their argument. Yet I find it hard to ignore the hope I have read in so many South Sudanese eyes. After half a century of war and destruction they are so hungry for peace and development. They are so eager to make it work, for themselves and for future generations.

Hundreds of thousands refugees are returning to South Sudan. Some fled the civil war with the north; others have been on the run to escape tribal conflict within the south. They have come from different states and different countries, back to the homeland they left in fear. I spoke to many returnees and others who the international aid community professionally labelled ‘IDP’, or ‘Internally Displaced Person’. For the record, they might be an IDP in an LDC [Least Developed Country] lacking progress in all the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]. For me, they were simply people whose stories deserved and needed to be told.

I interviewed South Sudanese both inside the country and out. In January, people who lived in refugee camps as far as Uganda and Kenya travelled all the way back to vote in the referendum on independence. Their stories of hope and perseverance -like those of so many others in South Sudan – were inspirational.

A young man called James had just found back his brother after years of living in separate refugee camps. For the first time since they had fled their country as teenagers, they went back to their home town to vote. He recalled the day with tears in his eyes: “Next to my people, I felt very strong. All of us were wishing the same. We said it to each other as we stood in line: our children will not suffer like we did.” I hope with all my heart James’ wish will come true.