A photographer on the ground in South Sudan: A new nation, in crisis

800,000 refugees. Massive food shortages. Ongoing violence. As the world's newest country falls further into crisis, photographer Fabio Bucciarelli — on assignment for Al Jazeera America — documents the harsh realities

South Sudan

When South Sudan, the world's 193rd nation, was formed by a long-awaited independence referendum on July 9, 2011, it was a time of jubilation. After decades of violence and scorched earth, it was supposed to be a promising rebirth.

Gazing upon the parades in Juba, members of the international community reassured themselves as the nation took its first steps. Growth would come quickly, many thought, believing with hope that South Sudan would chart a course far from the decades of fighting that lined the roads from Khartoum to Juba.

“This is a remarkable achievement," declared Joseph Deiss, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, as he welcomed the nation to the U.N. during the constitutional ceremony in the new capital. "A long-standing conflict has been stopped."

Feb. 19, 2014. Women grieve the loss of their home and possessions after their hut caught fire in a domestic incident.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

Although three years haven’t passed since Deiss’ declaration, South Sudan has faltered. At first the country wobbled, as political infighting agitated deep ethnic scars, before falling into full conflict. If there's any question of the serious humanitarian threat now facing South Sudan, the words of the United Nations' assistant secretary-general Toby Lanzer make the situation clear:

"The priority is to save lives now," Lanzer said in early February, requesting $1.27 billion in emergency funds to support those displaced by the outbreak of violence that started in December.

Seven million people — nearly 60 percent of South Sudan's population — teeter on the edge of a hunger crisis, a number that will inevitably grow with the arrival of the rainy season in April. More than 800,000 have fled their homes in the past eight weeks.

"We've been playing catch-up," Lanzer told the Los Angeles Times. "When there's enough water and latrines for 10,000 people, the number's gone up to 15,000. When there's enough for 15,000, the number's gone up to 20,000."

Feb. 17, 2014. Injured South Sudanese children rest in a Yirol government hospital.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

Italian photographer Fabio Bucciarelli is familiar with these grim statistics, having walked the golden-red soil of South Sudan numerous times in the past year and a half.

In February, Al Jazeera America commissioned Bucciarelli to photograph the growing refugee camps in Mingkaman, showing a slice of life of those displaced by the conflict. From there, he traveled to the Lakes State to photograph the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), documenting the South Sudanese national forces on patrol.

"These wars are hidden and quick," Bucciarelli told Al Jazeera America. "The images here are different, more subtle."

Feb. 18, 2014. Early morning in Yirol.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

The following is a dispatch by Fabio Bucciarelli from Yirol, South Sudan. Here he reflects on visiting the Mingkaman internally displaced persons (IDP) camp as well as an SPLA headquarters in Yirol and Nyang during his three weeks in-country.

In January, I decided to return to South Sudan, a country forgotten by the mainstream media, with only a few reporters and photographers on the ground.

The first time I visited the country was in May 2012. After years of war, South Sudan won its independence from Khartoum in the north. But the tensions in Unity, a state in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan, have never ceased. Located near the border, Unity remains unstable due to the area’s huge oil resources.

Feb. 17, 2014. SPLA government soldiers from Second Brigade during their morning meeting near Yirol.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

I’ve spent the past three weeks here photographing amid the political struggle between the president, Salva Kiir, and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Now the conflict seems likely to turn into a full-on ethnic war between tribes: Kiir’s Dinka and Macar’s Nuer.

After a couple of days spent in Juba patiently dealing with the typical bureaucracy of a nascent country, I was able to make my way north. My destination was Bunagok, in Lakes State, a small village consisting of a few huts located in the South Sudanese steppe.

Feb. 19, 2014. Women grieve the loss of their home in a village between Mingkaman and Bunagok.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

For an entire week, I traveled almost 100 kilometers a day on the bumpy road separating me from Mingkaman. In recent years, many of South Sudan’s resources have been devoted entirely to the military, leaving in the void a need for health care and infrastructure maintenance. Making your way outside Juba, paved roads quickly turn to mud, then disappear during the rainy season and complicate travel. A day’s drive can easily extend to day three as soon as the clouds open.

Feb. 19, 2014. Daily water collection at the Mingkaman refugee camp.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

After a couple of hours, Mingkaman looms clear in the distance; the town has become home to a camp for internally displaced persons. The camp contains thousands who have fled north to escape the fighting in Bor. There, under a tropical sun, every household seeks a bare tree for rest in the shade during the hottest hours of the day. Aid organizations like the International Committee for the Red Cross distribute aid, but it is never enough.

Feb. 19, 2014. South Sudanese IDPs wait in a queue as food supplies are distributed in Mingkaman.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

The Sudanese conflict (like, generally speaking, most conflicts in Africa) is largely invisible. I first noticed this tragic trend while photographing in Mali in May 2012. These wars are hidden and quick. It's hard to find front-line war photography of the kind we’ve seen in Libya or Syria. The images here in Mingkaman are different, more subtle: They describe visually the effect of the impending war, lending you a view of the civilian and military populations and providing a glimpse of life inside a murky, not clearly defined conflict.

Feb. 19, 2014. South Sudanese IDPs carry a sick pregnant woman to a vehicle for treatment at the Doctors Without Borders facility in the Mingkaman camp.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America
To be able to work on the ground in South Sudan,
you must have patience and respect local customs. Only in
this way do photographs evoke empathy, maintaining the
dignity of my subjects.

Fabio Bucciarelli

After reporting on the exiled populations in Mingkaman, I traveled to the counties of Yirol West and Yirol East. For three days I tried in vain to photograph the SPLA’s military life. Every day, I was given the same answer: "Come back tomorrow and we'll see what we can do." Luckily, on the fourth day, I received permission to visit the SPLA headquarters in Yirol and Nyang. Finally able to photograph the other side of the conflict, I documented General Lt. Col Juma Rian Deng’s troops on patrol. 

Feb. 17, 2014. SPLA General Lt. Col Juma Rian Deng poses at his headquarters in Yirol.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America
Feb. 15, 2014. SPLA government soldiers in Nyang headquarters, Yirol East county, Lakes State.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America
Feb. 17, 2014. An SPLA soldier from Second Brigade, headed by General Lt. Col Juma Rian Deng.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

After weeks of "cease-fire" — a term respected by neither side — the rebels have launched new attacks in Unity State, near Malakal, to take the area surrounding the oil wells. Those remaining in the area face uncertainty: waiting for the rebels to take further control or for the inevitable SPLA military response.

Slideshow: Inside the Yirol government hospital

It's not about difficult moments but about difficult dynamics. The costs to photograph in South Sudan are high; hotels, travel and fixers are expensive. 

To be able to work on the ground in South Sudan, you must have patience and respect local customs. Only in this way do photographs evoke empathy, maintaining the dignity of my subjects.

Feb. 15, 2014. An SPLA soldier from Second Battalion rests in Yirol East county.
Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America

Fabio Bucciarelli is an Italian documentary photographer. Born in Italy in 1980, he began photographing professionally in 2009 after studying digital imagining at the Universidad de Valencia.

Bucciarelli has covered numerous conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, documenting the Syrian civil war, the Libyan uprising and Gaddafi's overthrow, and the conflicts in South Sudan and Mali.

Courtesy Fabio Bucciarelli

Bucciarelli was recently named to PDN's 30 Under 30 in 2014. Last year, the Overseas Press Club of America recognized his documentary work in Syria with the Robert Capa Gold Medal, acknowleding "the best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise." His work has also been recognized by World Press Photo, POYI, the Leica Oskar Barnack award and Prix Bayeux-Calvados.  

His work has appeared in Time, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

To see more of the photographer's work, including reportage from Mali, Haiti and Syria, visit FabioBucciarelli.com.