UN refugee camp in Doro, South Sudan.
Vincent Defait

BUREBIEYSix months ago, the brown water of the Baro River was flowing peacefully between South Sudan and Ethiopia, and the town of Burebiey was just another dot on the map in western Ethiopia.

But now, we are standing at a key crossing point for refugees of a spreading civil war. Throughout the day, boats move back and forth between the two sides of the river. On one side are South Sudan and its civil war. On the other side Ethiopia and the promise of peace, food and shelter.

“I brought my wife and my two kids here,” says Chuol, a big man with a hat. “As soon as they are admitted into a refugee camp, I will come back home and fight.”

A couple of hours away by foot, on the other side of the river, Chuol's South Sudanese hometown and rebel stronghold Nasir was recently taken by government forces. Since then, like many other young men, he has been waiting idly by the Baro River, dreaming of revenge and retaliation.

Chuol belongs to the Nuer tribe, and his enemies are the Dinka people — two ethnic groups in a country whose independence is less than three years old.

On Dec. 15, the smoldering feud between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardi and his former Vice President Riek Machar deteriorated into open clashes in the capital, Juba. The prospect of presidential elections, scheduled for 2015, was the main reason behind the conflict. Very quickly, the front line was drawn along ethnic lines: President Kiir's Dinkas versus Machar's Nuers. Both sides have been responsible for countless atrocities, including the killings of civilians, rapes and pillaging.

Today, the UN warns of famine, as the war prevents the country's farmers from sowing. A cholera epidemic has even broken out in the capital. The international community — and the U.S. in particular — is at loss about what to do. In July 2011, South Sudan's independence was celebrated with great pomp, finally putting an end to two decades of war. And now, it looks like the country's back to square one.

No desire for peace

Malow, a 19-year-old former student turned soldier, is filled with rage. “Dinka people killed my brother,” he says, his eyes widening with anger. He has been living in the Kule 2 refugee camp for a week now, some 250 kilometers inside Ethiopia. His parents managed to pull him out of the fighting and brought him to the camp and its white UNHCR tents. In the middle of a damp forest, Malow bides his time and talks about going back to the front. “I’ve left my gun there. They killed my brother,” he keeps saying. “If our leaders tell us to stop, I will. But I don’t give a damn if I die.”

And sadly, death may be in store as both sides show no signs of wanting to make peace. A couple of days ago, IGAD — an Ethiopian-led regional organization that is striving to become a diplomatic heavyweight in the Somali Peninsula — called for Kiir and Machar to end the fighting and form a “transitional government of national unity” within 60 days, as the two men agreed by signed statement May 9. But the sounds of weapons firing still resonate all around.

“From what the rebels and Kiir himself said, they were forced to sign,” says James Copnall, former BBC correspondent in Sudan and author of a book on the separation of the two countries. “There was no real agreement or consensus, just considerable international pressure. On both sides, there is no willingness to work for peace. Signatures on a piece of paper don’t mean anything.”

The UN estimates that thousands of people have died, and that more than a million have been displaced. There are some 367,00 refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, mostly women. “When you look at the demographics in the refugee camps, the absence of young men and boys is striking,” notes Peter Salama, a UNICEF representative in Ethiopia. With the rainy season, relocating refugees becomes a nightmare — especially as the United Nations struggles to raise the $2 billion necessary for the operation.

Worse still, says Salama, “In South Sudan and across the border in refugee camps, children will be the first to succumb to the combined risk of malnutrition and infectious diseases such as measles, cholera and malaria. And the children there have also been deliberately targeted by armed forces of both sides, subjected to atrocious forms of violence, and recruited in the armed forces.”

In the refugee camp Kule 1, a blanket of clouds weighs heavily on everything. Nyakwon, her feet in the mud, is carrying her twins in her arms. On her shack made of branches and plastic sheets, the 25-year-old woman opens up a little. It took her five days, she says, pregnant as she was and walking with her two eldest children, to reach the Ethiopian border. She has been living here in the camp since early April, together with 51,500 other Nuer people. Her husband remained in the country to fight.

“All men are at war,” she says. “I'll stay here until there is peace. Anyway, back there, there is nothing left to eat.”

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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