Friday, May 08, 2009

The Demolished Lives of Juba Residents of Line Temirjya

By John A. Akec

It was one bright and hot Sunday afternoon in March of this year (2009) in Juba, South Sudan, when I agreed to meet up with a friend in Hai Malakal. The friend was late and I decided to stroll around for exercise as well as search for a shop to top up my cell phone call credit. The walk, coincidentally, took me to the nearby Line Temirjya block - a residential area that was established in 1946 for nurses. It is dominated by grass and mud built huts. I estimate a few hundred families had their homes there. All the names used to describe my discussants are not real.

Line Temirjya broadly means "Nurses Quarter." It is located behind Juba Blood Bank, a short distance south of Juba teaching hospital. It is bordered in the north and north-east by Supiri and Juba Girls Schools, respectively. A large playground separates Line Temirjya and the two schools. A single-carriageway in the west demarcates the residential block from Hai Malakal. Measuring by South Sudan’s standards, Line Temirjya is an old residential block. However, what greeted me on that particular Sunday afternoon was a scene of carnage and devastation, similar to one often left behind in the aftermath of a hurricane or an earthquake. Line Temirjya, as I came to know from clearly devastated residents, was in ruin - demolished two days earlier by Juba town planning authorities.

What captured my attention most as I got closer was the sight of residents sitting in the ruins of their houses and still try to carry on with something like a normal life. There I could see a women frying peanuts in large saucepan under clear sky on firewood and sending white smoke into air; three men working themselves out and sweating intensely under hot sun as they try to recover grass from their demolished house; two little kids playing with mud in what was their home few days earlier; a woman breastfeeding her child at the entrance of partly-chattered roofless house; an apparently stressed young woman sitting on a deckchair and rocking nervously in the sun amid the wreckage; a teenage boy sitting on a broken wall and holding a toddler in his hand, to mention but a few.

Curiously enough, I approached a woman doing some washing and asked her to explain how all this happened and what she felt about it. She called out to the young lady who was sitting on a deckchair a few yards from her, probably struggling to understand my Juba Arabic or English. It turned out the two were originally from Uganda. I introduce myself to the lady and bystanders as a university teacher who is also interested in society and the issues affecting communities. The young lady, Samyia (not her real name), told me she arrived in Juba two years ago to look for work so that she could go back to Uganda and pay her school fees. I asked whether they had enough notice when the demolition machines arrived. No, replied Samyia. "We were told that only those who built their houses in school playground will be destroyed, and were surprised to see the machines approaching and razing down every house", she continued. What the future looks like now that she is virtually homeless, I asked Samyia. "Don’t know", she replied with blank face as her eyes scanned the edge of the demolished village. That encounter left me with the impression that these residents share a similar profile as Samyia or those displaced by war to seek shelter in Juba town. But I was wrong. The majority of them as I came to discover were South Sudanese of all backgrounds. Some, now adults, were born there and lived all their lives in the block.

A middle aged woman, Martha (not her real name), and her husband were Amadis from Nimule who moved to Line Temirjya in 1993 lived close to Smyia. Ayor is a housewife with her husband Malwal ( a private truck driver) are Dinkas from Yirol . Ayor’s mother in-law was a Bari (that is, Malwal’s mother) had always lived in Line Temirjya since 1972. Malwal was out driving his truck to Rumbek when the ‘demolitionists’ arrived at his home back in Juba and left his child, wife, and mother all fending under a tree.

Achol barely said much as she stopped breastfeeding her child when she saw me approaching. All expressed anger and disappointment with government. "The government should to be like [good] father. He may discipline his children but still caters for their needs", said a 22-year old neighbour, Peter. Peter is a Bari and his parents have always lived in the block since his birth. Peter currently studies public and business administration at the University of Juba. At least 13 of his family members have been rendered homeless by the demolition and their luggages were visibly packed at the corner of a room in their demolished house.

Most moving still, I had a chat with a brother-and-sister (Tina (7) and Leon (5)). The two siblings were playing in what was their house front space. I asked little Leon to show me his bed. Leon pointed to a heap of clothes and furniture in the middle of the wreckage, with one of his right-hand fingers pushed in his mouth. I asked Leon whether he goes to school these days, but Tina interrupted to tell me that he used to go to nursery. Their mother, Agnus, was busy baking peanuts in a large pan on an open fire. She sells the peanuts to buy food to feed her family. Her husband, Leme, also a Bari, was born and raised up in Line Temirjya. A friend came to help Leme to recover some of the grass from their demolished house. I asked him what he was going to do with the recovered grass. "Find a space in no-man-land and errect a shelter for my family", retorted the clearly annoyed Leme.

Another resident told me that it is strange that their government should destroy their houses with no alternative arrangements to resettle them or give them any sort of assistance with the move. "It is unthinkable for people to be told just move out with no where to move !", he said angrily.
On the other hand, a local friend and colleague told me two days later that the area now belongs to Juba Blood Bank and that compensation was paid in early 1980s to many residents to quit and resettle elsewhere. I also heard from same friend that some of the residents have received payment from authorities. From my conversation with sample residents, it would appear a great majority had not received any compensation financially or in kind.

Overall, I spent nearly an hour walking across the block and chatting to the residents who sat under trees or under open sky, or sheltering by broken walls as the rainy season approaches with dark clouds hovering menacingly in the horizons of Juba. With no exception, all those I spoke to were disappointed with the government demolition policy and complained about luck of support from anyone, including NGOs.

Eventually, I walked out of camp of suffering, with heavy heart. Like residents of Line Temirjya, I was not impressed by the lack of proper planning to compensate or resettle those adversely affected by demolition.

We, the South Sudanese, have fought an impressive liberation war and paid a high price for the achievement. However, we are yet to demonstrate to our citizens that we have what it takes to win the development war within reasonable time scale. And with the general election approaching next year, the case of homless residents of Line Temirjya in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, is hardly an election vote winner.

The time for the decision-makers in the government of South Sudan to rethink their development strategies by reflecting on the experience of the past 4 years is long overdue.


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