Migrant Lives

In South Sudan, A Tailor's Tales Of Fleeing War — Over And Over

Peter Koang has been displaced three times since the war in South Sudan began. Each time, he managed to salvage his sewing machine, which now brings him a rare bit of stability at a time of fragile peace.

Tailor Peter Koang and his sewing machine in Nyal
Sam Mednik

NYAL — Tracing his worn fingers over a rundown sewing machine, Peter Koang steadied a piece of fabric under the needle. He pressed his foot to the pedal as a skirt began to take shape.

"This is all I have left," the 47-year-old tailor said of the device.

When South Sudan's civil war broke out five years ago, the father of 10 lost everything he owned during repeated attacks by government forces on his hometown of Leer in Unity State, in the country's north. Koang was once a prominent businessman in his community: In addition to working as a tailor, he owned two shops in town. But in the war's first two years, Koang said, soldiers burned down his house, demolished his shops and stole his cattle, an important source of wealth and livelihood for villagers there.

But there was one thing Koang wouldn't let them destroy, he said. His sewing machine.

"This is too important to me," he said. "It sustains my family."

Today, Koang shelters in the opposition-held town of Nyal in Unity State. He opened a small shop in the town center and has made a name for himself as one of the most talented tailors. Koang makes blouses for women, shirts for children and suits for men from the host community while also serving the increasing number of displaced people who are still pouring in. They travel for days by foot and canoe through marshes and swamps to reach Nyal.

Half a decade of fighting in war-torn South Sudan has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, creating one of the world's fastest-growing refugee crises and Africa's biggest human exodus since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. More than 4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, according to the United Nations. While more than 2 million have sought refuge across the border in neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya, nearly 2 million more remain internally displaced — the majority of them, like Koang, having lost most of their belongings. Many have survived mass murders and rapes.

Nyal has been relatively calm in the two years Koang has lived there. Running his shop has allowed him to generate enough income to provide for his family and send his children to school.

He estimated that, together with one other tailor, he has clothed at least 300 displaced people in two years.

They didn't spare anybody.

As one of South Sudan's last opposition-held territories, Nyal and its surrounding small islands — patches of fertile land nestled in swampy waters — have become a makeshift refuge for people fleeing brutality throughout the country. The war erupted in 2013, originally a power struggle between the current president, Salva Kiir, his former deputy Riek Machar, and other factions. A power-sharing agreement between Kiir, Machar and rebel groups signed on Sept. 12 is the latest attempt at peace.

But the peace remains fragile amid continued attacks. Unity State still experiences fighting, including a surge of sexual violence. Earlier this month, 125 women and girls were raped and beaten in a 10-day period while walking to a food distribution center, according to aid group Doctors Without Borders. More than 200 civilians were killed in a particularly horrific round of attacks between April and May, including 35 children, according to a U.N. report.

On a visit to Nyal in August, Refugees Deeply spoke with families displaced by fighting in Unity State. They live crowded into small huts mixed within the host community, sharing accommodation with friends, relatives and strangers.

Many, like Nyabieli Gai, said they'll return home only if the government removes its troops from their areas. The 50-year-old grandmother was displaced from Mayendit in May and now shelters in Nyal.

Women and children in Nyal, South Sudan — Photo: Sam Mednick

Seated in the yard outside her hut, Gai flailed her arms, explaining how she watched government soldiers gang-rape women and abduct children.

"They didn't spare anybody," she said. She and her granddaughter fled together to a nearby island, where they survived on water lilies for three months before making the four-day journey to the mainland of Nyal, Gai said.

Peter Maboz, a community leader who lives on nearby Raath island, said he's heard countless terrible stories from people who have escaped to the island throughout the conflict.

"I feel sad because these are my people," Maboz said, adding that he's waiting for the day when all of the displaced people will be able to return to their homes.

The peace remains fragile amid continued attacks.

Koang's family has been displaced three times since the war began. Whenever they heard rumors of pending attacks, Koang would dig a hole in the ground and hide his sewing machine inside or conceal it in a nearby swamp, protected in a plastic bag. After each bout of violence, he retrieved the machine and carried it to the next settlement, where thousands of displaced people sought refuge from the fighting. There, he'd make clothes for people who'd lost theirs during the clashes.

"It was a very busy time. We had to support people who were naked and give them underwear," Koang said of himself and his fellow tailor.

September's power-sharing deal follows a failed agreement made in 2015, which ended with Machar, the former vice-president, fleeing the country on foot. The latest deal is complex. It involves an eight-month pre-transitional period when opposition and government forces will become one national army, to be followed by a three-year transitional period culminating in elections. Machar has been allowed to return and serve as first vice-president.

The United Stastes, the UK and Norway — the "troika" that helped South Sudan gain independence in 2011 — expressed concern over the agreement, saying it wasn't realistic or sustainable.

"The Troika is committed to peace in South Sudan," they said in a statement. "But in order to be convinced of the parties' commitment, we will need to see a significant change in their approach."

Oxfam has called on South Sudan's government to put its people at the center of its peace process.

"Millions are in need of assistance and it's going to take years for people to rebuild their lives," said Nicolo" Di Marzo, the organization's deputy country director in South Sudan. "That's why peace has to be sustainable, so that people can farm without fearing attack, can rebuild their livelihoods, and so that women and men can meaningfully participate in rebuilding their country."

While some displaced South Sudanese say they want to be hopeful, most remain skeptical.

"We've been told there's no longer fighting, but we are doubting. The biggest problem is that Kiir doesn't trust Machar," said Laurice Loin, captain of the opposition military for Panyijiar County, where Nyal town is located. He said he won't recall his men from the battlefield until government forces remove theirs.

Meanwhile, civilians across the country are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Koang tries to focus on making clothes. His fabric arrives by boat from South Sudan's capital of Juba. though because of the war it takes anywhere from four weeks to three months to reach him.

Tending to the growing number of customers entering his shop, Koang said he's thankful for his sewing machine, his lifeline.

"It's transformed my life," he said. "It's helped educate my kids, and it's helped people during the war. I'll never go anywhere without it."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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