The easiest way to get around Pibor right now is by boat.
Unexpectedly heavy rains have caused devastating floods across the entire Jonglei region in the eastern part of South Sudan, leaving land previously parched by the sweltering sun submerged in deep, stagnant water.
“Over 78 people died because of these floods,” says Boma Governor, David Yau Yau. “Some of the livestock, the cows in the cattle camps, also destroyed. People’s belongings have been destroyed. The whole of Boma is covered with water. The situation is helpless up until now.
While the water is receding, the immense humanitarian need remains. Hundreds of people are crammed into makeshift camps outside the governor’s office. Children are unable to go to school, so they find entertainment instead by fishing in the temporary lakes created by the rain.
Samuel Gai has lived in Pibor his whole life.
The 35-year-old has survived civil war as well as long-standing intercommunal conflict between the warring Murle and Dinka tribes that has involved cattle-raiding, child abduction and a cycle of revenge attacks.
After strenuous efforts by local Governors to build peace over the past few years, that violence has significantly reduced with the different ethnic groups living together in relative harmony recently.
“A lot of abducted children have been recovered across the neighbouring communities. Cows have been returned and taken back to their owners,” says Boma Governor, David Yau Yau. “We are planning to open up some routes towards lasting peace in the border areas and all the entry points so that our youth are mobilized peacefully to stay together.”
But devastating floods have put the ongoing reconciliation at risk with severely damaged roads limiting the ability of communities to travel to meet each other for peace-building activities.
“To make peace, we need to be able to move around – so the youth of this area can move to other locations and discuss how to make peace,” says Samuel Gai. “Then youth from the other tribe can come here too, so we can share information and stop the violence.”
During a flying visit to Pibor, the Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan promised that peacekeeping engineers, who have already rebuilt roads across the region, will redouble their efforts to repair the damage so that peace can progress.
“The roads that we’ve built are making a difference,” he says.
“We’ve seen, for the first time, Murle youth in Bor and Dinka youth in Pibor. That never happened before so the communication between the two different groups have brought tensions down and people have realized that by being able to travel, sell things and conduct business with each other, they are able to benefit from joining together, rather than conflict.”
Communities were benefiting from the peace efforts, rebuilding their homes and planting their crops in the aftermath of the five-year civil war. But the floods are proving to be a real set-back, with many people losing the little that they had.
“At the moment, obviously, it’s a pure emergency. People need plastic sheets for shelter. There are water and sanitation issues,” says David Shearer. “As people start to go back, they’re going to have to go back with something because they’ve lost their belongings. There’s also the long-term impact of this which is that crops have been destroyed and there will be food shortages further down the line.”
Despite the fresh hardship caused by the floods, the resilient community say they are committed to rebuilding their lives and living together peacefully – united in their diversity.