When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, there was great optimism both inside and outside of the country that it was putting its deeply troubled past behind it.
For generations, the South Sudanese had been terrorized by rebel armies and repressive government soldiers. At independence, South Sudan was one of the poorest nations in sub-Saharan Africa but also one of its most oil-rich.
The honeymoon for the world's newest nation didn't last long. Late in 2013 the president and vice president took up arms against each other. And things went downhill fast from there.
"It's the worst I've ever seen and the worst I've ever experienced," says Emma Drew, the humanitarian program manager for Oxfam in South Sudan, who's worked there for eight years. The brutal civil war left tens of thousands of South Sudanese dead, drove more than 2 million people from their homes and lay to waste entire towns.
Aid groups and the U.N. warn that the country is now on the brink of a catastrophic food crisis. One analysis predicts that 40,000 people face starvation. Drew says that dire prediction sounds reasonable to her.
"Absolutely. 100 percent. Yup." She worries not only about those 40,000 "but also the hundreds of thousands that are just one step below," she says.
A peace accord signed in August of 2015 is supposed to bring the leaders of the two warring parties, President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Reik Machar, back together in a unity government. But progress toward that unity government has faltered.
As Kiir and Machar (who's in exile in Ethiopia) bicker, sporadic violence continues across the country along with hyperinflation and massive food shortages.
The conflict has also destroyed crops, driven farmers off their fields and hampered production at South Sudan's oil fields.
The country has some of the largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, yet nearly a third of South Sudan's population is now dependent on international food aid to survive.
Unlike the devastating drought that's plaguing neighboring Ethiopia, Drew at Oxfam says, the current crisis in South Sudan is a direct result of the war.
"Everything has to be rebuilt," she says. "Markets have been destroyed. Supply lines have been broken. We have to start from scratch."
Inflation is running at 300 to 400 percent. There's a dire shortage of hard currency. Oil production has plummeted, and most of the economy has collapsed.
When South Sudan broke away from Sudan five years ago, it was pumping more than 300,000 barrels of oil a day. Oil exports provided 98 percent of the government's revenue.
Fighting shut down some of the wells. And now because of the drop in global oil prices, South Sudan is losing money on every barrel it pumps. The problem is that South Sudan is landlocked, and its former adversary, the government in Khartoum, is charging $25 a barrel to ship crude through its pipelines to the Red Sea.
With oil trading at just above $30 a barrel, South Sudan's primary export isn't worth exporting.
In an open-air market in the capital Juba, traders say the economic crisis is worsening every week. Prices are rising and people have less money to spend.
Victor Steven, who's 45, sells palm-size plastic bags filled with cooking oil and sugar from a table he has set up in the street.
"There's no money for two months now," he says. "Even the people here in the central government have no money. Their pockets are empty. People are really suffering."
Steven is selling paper cones of salt no larger than a thimble. A few tomatoes are stacked in a modest pyramid on his counter. Customers, he says, are buying less and less.
"Since the beginning of this month, the prices have gone up, up, up, up," he says.
The problem, he says, is the war. South Sudan needs a definitive end to its civil conflict before it can solve any of its other problems.
"If the peace comes, everything will improve very well, yeah," he says.
He takes a seat behind his meager table that he calls his "shop." Slouching in his chair, he folds his arms across his chest and he waits — for customers, for peace, for whatever may come.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
South Sudan is the world's newest country, in existence for just five years. Its history as an independent nation is short and sad because a power struggle plunged the oil-rich country into civil war. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: On a flat, dusty plain in the north of the country, nearly 120,000 people live behind a razor-wire fence. From the outside, it looks like a prison. But actually, it's a United Nation's camp to protect civilians. The people here live in simple reed and tarp huts jammed up against one another. Women line up in the searing midday heat for food rations. Girls jostle to get water from open spigots. Young boys kick soccer balls in the powdery dirt.
One of the amazing things here is that you really aren't seeing many boys or men of what they say is fighting age. It's almost all small children and women in here.
Waiting at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in the camp, Rebecca Nyarik says she walked here two months ago with her infant son in her arms to get away from the fighting. And what about the boy's father, her husband?
REBECCA NYARIK: My husband during war, I don't know where he's going.
BEAUBIEN: She says this civil war has split up her family and South Sudan as a whole.
NYARIK: We of Sudanese, we are tired now. Some people to go to Kenya, Khartoum, Ethiopia, everywhere because of war. You see?
BEAUBIEN: It's all because of the war, she says. In December of 2013, South Sudan's president and vice president took up arms against each other. The brutal civil war has killed tens of thousands of people and driven more than 2 million from their homes. And officially, it's supposed to be over. The warring parties signed a peace deal back in August. But major parts of that accord still haven't been implemented. Last month, one of the U.N. camps for civilians was attacked by gunmen, including soldiers in government uniforms. While U.N. peacekeepers stood by, the attackers drove 30,000 people from their homes and burned nearly half the camp to the ground. The war has destroyed much of South Sudan's already bare-bones infrastructure. Crops have been burned, schools demolished, farmers driven off their land.
EMMA DREW: Everything has to be rebuilt. Markets have been destroyed. Supply lines have been broken. We have to start from scratch.
BEAUBIEN: Emma Drew with Oxfam has worked in South Sudan for 8 years.
DREW: It's the worst I've ever seen and the worst I've ever experienced.
BEAUBIEN: Aid groups and the U.N. warn that South Sudan is on the brink of a catastrophic food crisis. One analysis predicts 40,000 people face starvation.
Do people like you and people who are working here genuinely worry that you could have 40,000 people starving in this country in the coming months?
DREW: Absolutely. One-hundred percent, yeah - and not only for those 40,000 that are close to catastrophe stage, also the other hundreds of thousands that are just one step below.
BEAUBIEN: This in a country with some of the largest oil fields in Sub-Saharan Africa. When South Sudan broke away from Khartoum five years ago, oil exports made up 98 percent of the government's revenue. But now, South Sudan is losing money on every barrel it pumps. Here's the problem. The only way for South Sudan to export its oil is through pipelines controlled by its former adversary, the government in Khartoum, for which Khartoum charges them $25 a barrel. Oil prices have recently fallen to as low as $30 a barrel, making South Sudan's primary export barely worth pumping out of the ground. In an open air market in the capital, Juba, traders say the economic crisis is getting worse every week. Prices are rising. And people have less money to spend.
VICTOR STEVEN: No money 2 months now - even the people here, the central government, no money, their pockets are empty. People are really suffering. So we don't know how to do.
BEAUBIEN: Forty-five-year-old Victor Steven has a table set up in the street. He sells palm-sized plastic bags filled with cooking oil and sugar. He offers paper cones of salt no larger than a thimble. A few tomatoes are stacked in a modest pyramid on his counter. Customers, he says, are buying less and less.
STEVEN: Since the beginning of this month, the prices have gone up, up, up, up, up.
BEAUBIEN: Why is that? Why are they going up?
STEVEN: I don't know.
BEAUBIEN: The men behind him laugh at my attempt to figure out South Sudan's hyperinflation. But Steven doesn't laugh. He just shakes his head. He tells me there is a solution. And it's the same solution that analysts and aid workers and activists have been telling me the whole time I've been here.
STEVEN: We need our government to work hard to bring peace.
BEAUBIEN: You think the economy and everything will improve once the peace comes.
STEVEN: If the peace comes, everything will improve very well.
BEAUBIEN: But so far, an end to the civil war has been elusive for this young nation. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Juba, South Sudan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.