VIDEO: South Sudan celebrates one year of independence with mixed emotions


South Sudan celebrated its first year of independence Monday. (Photo by babasteve via Flickr.)

South Sudan had much to celebrate Monday after its first year of independence, a turbulent start for this budding nation. 

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Seen from the air, the country's vastness is matched by the enormity of its challenges. On the ground, newcomers gasp at the lack of infrastructure, while old timers marvel how much the capital, Juba, has developed in just a year.

But there is a lot of unfinished business with Sudan to the north, some of it bloody: border disputes, ethnic conflict and complex issues over oil wealth.

South Sudan Celebrates First Year of Independence
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"Things can get really messy," said Paleki Matthew, a 24-year-old law school graduate. "Personally, I think it's better that we have separated. Let's just stay good neighbors, instead of being together while things are not getting anywhere."

But being good neighbors is anything but easy. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is accused of war crimes and wanted by the International Criminal Court, accused of genocide. South Sudan was heavily criticized for its incursion into the Heglig oil fields across the border in April.

For months, attacks described as ethnic cleansing have forced thousands of northern citizens — whose communities were accused of siding with the South in the 22-year civil war — to flee the Nuba Mountains and seek refuge in the south.

An ethnic Nuer whose family has roots in Upper Nile State, Matthew grew up in Khartoum, the northern capital. When she moved to Juba four years ago, she gave up a much higher standard of living. But she said she had no regrets.

"It was just something I wasn't used to," she said. "But I'm glad I'm in my country. This is my home."

It still takes a four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate Juba's deeply rutted dirt roads. Most locals ride on the back of boda-bodas, the ubiquitous motorcycles from neighboring Uganda that serve as taxis. Despite the fertile soil, there’s no commercial agriculture. Food is expensive because most of it is imported.

Sipping a cool drink as United Nations peacekeeping troops splash around in a swimming pool one broiling afternoon, Matthew shares an experience she had on the losing side of job discrimination. It's a kind of favoritism she thinks is holding her country back.

"When I finished my law degree, I was at the top of my class for four years," she said. "But when I came to apply to the Ministry of Legal Affairs, I didn't get a job."

She wasn't sure what happened. When she went to apply for the position, she was asked who had recommended her. Meanwhile, some of her colleagues who hadn't passed all their subjects were already working as legal advisers.

"It's a very unfair system," Matthew said.

Matthew diversified, working at an organization promoting press freedom and as a TV news anchor. She can sympathize with some of her compatriots who've found themselves in tough situations after returning from the diaspora. But she's surprised at their lack of motivation to accept jobs that immigrants from neighboring countries are eager to take.

"A lot of healthy men in Juba sit from morning till night drinking tea on the street," she said. "They're not disabled. Some of them are actually university graduates. But they'd still rather sit around than work as waiters and bus drivers."

It's an attitude problem Matthew says will take some time to change. Many locals are poorly qualified because the war obliterated their chance to get an education.

"That is something we can all understand," she said. "And on the other hand, there are cases where some Ugandans and Kenyans forge documents and get jobs by claiming to be South Sudanese. I just want to see the right people in the right places."

Matthew’s can-do spirit eventually won out. She expects to get her law license this month and plans to open her own practice.

She has also joined the South Sudan Women's Empowerment Network, a grassroots organization campaigning for greater awareness of women's rights and constitutional reform. High on the group's agenda is a provision defining a legal marrying age, since many girls are married off before they turn 18.

As the country prepares to celebrate a year of nationhood, July 9 is tinged with sadness for Mathew. Her father, who campaigned for more rights, died on the same day two years earlier.

"He didn’t live to see the birth of this country," she said.

Matthew wants to spend Independence Day alone for reflection. After that, it's back to nation building.