The abandoned letters slump in piles on the floor and spill out of over-full post boxes. There are airmailed envelopes addressed in Chinese and American absentee ballots from the 2008 presidential election, a dozen postcards from an American elementary school, and enough Ethiopian Airways frequent flier statements to paper the walls of a small mansion. The return address on one orphan letter from Kenya simply says, “Your mum.” Another, from Zimbabwe, reads FAMILY REQUEST FOR URGENT HELP AND BUSINESS ASSISTANCE across the flap.
But as he wanders through the unlit mail room of the only post office in South Sudan’s capital on a recent Friday afternoon, Rogasiano Felix Andrea has a simple, unsentimental explanation for how so much mail had ended up abandoned here.
“In the war, many have gone. Maybe others have lost their box key,” says Mr. Andrea, the assistant director for international relations at the South Sudan Postal Service.
But there is, perhaps, an even simpler reason for the backlog. Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the country has not been able to set up outgoing international mail delivery. And all of its incoming mail stops here, in a quiet back room of the capital’s only post office. There is no home delivery, no address-forwarding, no return-to-sender.
And so the mail room here feels less like a place to send or receive mail than an intimate archive of a country upended by civil war. Its stacks of uncollected letters offer quiet hints of the upheavals that have shaken the world’s youngest country in the six years since its birth – separated families, shuttered businesses, lost connections to the outside world.
In the long rows of blue post office boxes there are fistfuls of mail addressed to a place that technically no longer exists – Juba, Sudan – or to cities nearly blown off the map by conflict – Malakal, Kaya, Kajo-Keji. There are letters that arrived here in the days leading to the two explosions of violence in the capital in December 2013 and July 2016 that no one ever came to collect.
Dear Nyuol, begins an abandoned postcard from a Key West, Fla., elementary school. My name is Sean. I am 10 years old. I love to play baseball. I also love to read books. I have three dogs. The type of dog is a boxer. Key West is 90 miles from Cuba. We are also known for the best sunsets. Do you have pets in Juba? What are you learning in school? Sincerely, your pen pal Sean.
Beneath the card are a dozen more like it, dirt-streaked images of turquoise seas and white sand beaches, each a staccato procession of biography and interrogation. My favorite color is hot pink. What is it like in South Sudan? School is awesome. What does your teacher look like?
Write back soon.
Talk to you soon.
I look forward to being your pen pal!
Connecting a nation
In the United States today, you’d be hard-pressed to call the post office a popular institution. But it wasn’t always this way. Across the early decades of American history, home mail delivery connected a geographically vast and bewilderingly diverse country that, in many ways, had little else to hold it together. It was an equalizer – mail was delivered to the poor as well as the rich, unlike in colonial Britain. And so, it became the “central nervous system” of the young democracy, writes Winifred Gallagher in her book, “How the Post Office Created America” – a way for news, from the personal to the political, to travel from the young country’s urban centers of power to its farthest-flung rural corners.
When South Sudan became independent from Sudan in July 2011, many had similar hopes for what a mail service might do to connect the new country. Edouard Dayan, the head of the Universal Postal Union, urged the country to rebuild a postal service gutted by decades of civil war, pointing out that it was “an important infrastructure that helps respond to inhabitants' communication needs as well as a country's socioeconomic development.”
And was definitely a place that needed holding together. Besides a shared desire for independence, after all, the Texas-sized chunk of central Africa had very little keeping it glued into place. For more than five decades, the southern Sudanese had been part of Africa’s largest country – an unwieldy collection of tribes and geographies shoved together by British colonialism – but treated, many felt, as second-class citizens in their own land.
As they fought two grueling civil wars against the country’s north, most southerners’ strongest sense of community came from within their own ethnic groups. So when South Sudan became independent after half a century of conflict, few people had a sense of what it meant to take pride in being part of a nation.
“We basically had to start from scratch,” Madut Biar Yel, then the minister for telecommunications and postal services, told delegates of the Universal Postal Union in November 2011. He was talking about building a mail-delivery system, but might as well have meant building a country.
South Sudan was born with just 68 miles of paved road. Only a quarter of the population was literate and even in the capital, there was no formal system of addresses. Most of the country’s post offices had been destroyed in the wars, along with thousands of its schools, clinics, and homes.
Still, the early days of the country – and the post office – were hopeful. The postal service released a flurry of patriotic stamps featuring the country’s new president, its unusual wildlife (a vulture with a tuft of chin whiskers; an antelope with round, white satellite dish ears), and a fluttering South Sudanese flag. At the central post office in Juba, meanwhile, donations poured in. There were sorting machines and desks given by the Egypt Post and two new mail delivery trucks from the UPU, the UN agency that coordinates global mail delivery.
Holding on to 'normal'
But that soon began to unravel. Two years after independence, the brewing ethnic conflict in South Sudan broke open into civil war. A power struggle between the president, Salva Kiir, and his former deputy, Riek Machar, who’d always been more rivals than comrades, turned bloody, and spread quickly across the country.
General, begins one opened letter, piled among hundreds of lost messages in wobbly stacks on the floor below P.O. Box 267. We call on the South Sudanese authorities to either immediately charge Elias Waya Nyipuoch with a recognizable offence and present him in court, or release him.
The box belonged to the chief of staff for the country’s armed forces. The letter came from an Amnesty International club in Sweden, urging an end to what had become a too-common tale in the new South Sudan – the arbitrary detention of one of the government’s many political enemies.
Meanwhile, the country’s economy was beginning to rot away. Oil money, which accounted for as much as 99.8 percent of the country’s export earnings in the years after independence, was dwindling as global prices tanked and civil war choked exports. To stave off financial ruin, the government began printing more money, sending the country spinning into hyperinflation, which reached 800 percent in 2016.
Albert Langoia, a senior inspector for the post office, watched his monthly salary halve in value, then halve again. By early 2017, it was worth less than $30 a month.
And then the government stopped paying altogether. He and many other civil servants say they have not received a single paycheck since April.
“The post office used to connect us to the world,” he says, remembering the days when the now-ghostly mail room was stacked high with packages and letters from the outside. “Now [the employees] keep coming here just to have something to do.”
But as the war grinds on, it’s getting harder and harder to pretend that things are normal, he says. Outside his office, queues of cars hundreds deep trail out in front of nearly every gas station in the capital. The fuel shortage has gotten so bad that some weeks radio stations don’t operate and newspapers don’t print – never mind finding fuel to power the generators inside a half-functional post office. Some days, Mr. Langoia says, employees don’t come to work because they simply can’t afford the motorcycle ride there.
Still, early each morning, the postal service’s single functioning mail truck drives out to the city’s decrepit airport – a dirt-stained tent planted on the edge of a runway – to see if any incoming mail has arrived on the morning flight from Nairobi. Many days it arrives back at the post office empty-handed.
“People have given up on the postal service,” says Andrea, the postal service’s assistant director for international relations. Few people think to send mail through the post anymore. Nongovernmental organizations – and anyone else who can afford it – rely on private courier services like DHL.
So why hasn’t he given up on the postal service too?
“Every country in the world has a postal service,” he says. “We have to keep ours going.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation.
Editor's note: Children's names have been changed to protect their identity.