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Halted by cruel war, South Sudan’s once bustling second-largest city comes back to life

By Christina Corbett


A 360 degree image of a village in Malakal, Unity State.

Malakal. It should be bustling and busy. It was South Sudan’s second biggest city after Juba. Instead, after more than three and a half years of war the town is almost destroyed. It has changed hands more than 10 times during the brutal conflict which has ravaged South Sudan.

‘Before this war people were living together peacefully in Malakal,’ said Jacob Chol, one of Oxfam’s food officers. ‘If you knew Malakal before, and you saw it now, you would want to cry. It was a beautiful city in 2013. Now a part of it is lost.’

A diverse mix of people from many backgrounds worked here and lived here – Arabs, Nuers, Shilluks, Dinkas. Everyone was interconnected.  The destruction of Malakal is testament to the violence that almost ruined it. Violence that continues in so much of the country.

As we bumped along the potholed road – damaged by the war – we passed the government offices deserted during the fighting. Now they were slowly crumbling. The university in Malakal had been looted and destroyed. Gunshot holes marked the walls.  

Oxfam held a meeting with some of the people who lived in what was left of the town. It was in the town’s sports stadium, across the uneven football pitch. The grass was long, and goats grazed under the broken goal posts.

I went too. We listened to what the people of Malakal needed the most, and talked about Oxfam’s project to support them.

There were old women with gold coloured walking sticks, men with colourful hats. There were people who had stalls at the market, carpenters, fisherman, cooks. People whose children went to school.

‘We became desperate,’ said Nyok Achuil, a Malakal businessman. ‘We had no food. Agriculture ground to a halt when people were too scared to go to their fields.’

‘I used to sell things in the market to pay for my children to go to school,’ said Nyawi Arop. Now the children spend all day at home.

Oxfam is supporting people with jobs so that they can get back on their feet. Activities like bread making and soap manufacturing help them earn money. Oxfam is also helping farmers to help them grow food for their families and sell it in the market.  

Today there are signs of change in Malakal. In 2013, when fighting was amongst the worst the town had seen, people ran to the UN peacekeeping mission base for shelter. Slowly, they are coming back.

‘People are tired of war. It is no longer important,’ said Jacob. ‘What is important now is to have food. It is to have a real life.’

Malakal has, for now, turned a corner in this brutal conflict. Slowly the many ethnicities that embraced the town nearly four years ago are beginning to come back.

Malakal is beginning to see real life again.

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