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BIDI BIDI, Uganda – President Donald Trump's proposed deep cuts in foreign aid could mark the retreat of U.S. support for South Sudan, a nation America enthusiastically helped to create.
The world's youngest country gained freedom in 2011 after a U.S.-led peace process, later saw its civil war pause after a U.S.-backed peace agreement — and now could become the face of a dramatic global drop in U.S. assistance.
Trump's budget plan, which requires approval from Congress, promises to "reduce or end" support for organizations that offer humanitarian support and slashes more than $200 million from U.N. peacekeeping, which operates mostly in Africa. Both are part of a $10.1 billion foreign aid cut to support Trump's "America First" vision.
With a three-year civil war and a recently declared famine, as well as Africa's largest refugee crisis, South Sudan is suddenly in danger of feeling last.
The East African nation is one of the largest recipients of U.S. humanitarian aid, getting more than $2 billion from 2014 until 2017. The U.S. support during its fight for independence from Sudan has been called one of the greatest foreign policy legacies of the George W. Bush administration.
But now South Sudan is confronted with a brutal lesson for countries that have come to rely on American assistance: It can be fleeting.
The Trump pullback on foreign aid comes shortly after the United Nations announced that the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since the world body was founded in 1945, with more than 20 million people in four countries — including South Sudan — facing starvation and famine.
"The proposed budget cuts are alarming. Deep cuts like the ones we're seeing would hamstring peacekeeping operations not just in South Sudan but across other vital missions where the U.N. may be the only thing standing between civilians and mass atrocities," said Alison Griffen, director of peacekeeping for the Washington-based Center for Civilians in Conflict.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, is one of the world body's most expensive, with a budget over $1 billion. It is also one of the most challenging, with its 12,000-strong force largely confined to areas around their bases both by the fighting and by government restrictions and harassment.
Inside those bases, however, are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who have been sheltering there for months or sometimes years, seeing no other safe place left. The decision made early in the civil war to open the bases to civilians is unique for a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
"I don't think any single act taken by the U.N. since 1945 has saved more lives than the opening of UNMISS camps in December 2013," said Andrew Gilmour, the U.N.'s assistant secretary-general for human rights.
After fighting erupted again in South Sudan's capital in July, more than 700,000 people crossed the border into northern Uganda, and the refugees are still arriving. More than 170,000 came in the first two months of this year.
The refugees at this already crowded Bidi Bidi settlement in Uganda rely in part on aid from the United States, the world's largest humanitarian donor, for the bare essentials.
At a U.N. World Food Program distribution on Thursday, Michael Bathew told The Associated Press that he and other refugees are getting desperate. "We need some support in terms of food security . all my property was taken by the government forces. I have nothing,"
Both of the U.N. agencies Bathew relies on could be cut by Trump's proposed budget. The U.S. gave more than $2 billion to the World Food Program in 2016, and $1.4 billion to the U.N. refugee agency.
More than 60 percent of South Sudan's refugees are children. Many refugee schools in Bidi Bidi are simple grey tents that bake in the fierce sun. On average there are more than 100 students per teacher. The children share notebooks, pencils and water.
"There are not enough for children to sit and for the teachers to stand," teacher Shida Jamila said.
Back home in South Sudan, the future continues to crumble. The United Nations says one-third of its schools have been destroyed.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.