JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- As South Sudan approaches 10 years of being an independent country, many challenges remain for the world's youngest state.
A 2018 peace deal ending a five-year civil war has faced delays in implementation. A government of national unity was formed only last year. Millions of people remain in need of humanitarian assistance ahead of the anniversary of independence in July.
One major problem has been the formation of a unified security force, which has been hampered by lack of funding and political will. More than 25,000 trainees have yet to graduate from centers across South Sudan, many struggling without regular meals, medical care or even a curriculum. Many trainees have abandoned the centers.
Life in the centers has been especially difficult for women, who had hoped that serving in the security forces would be a stable way to help provide for their families. Their ambitions reflect those of many across South Sudan who saw lives and livelihoods shattered by the conflict.
The Associated Press last year explored the lives of women in the centers and followed up as frustrations mounted about the delayed timing of their graduation.
One trainee, Happifanya Ogwon James, told the AP she has been waiting to graduate for almost a year. During that time she became pregnant and found herself begging for larger food portions. She alleged that food is distributed according to ethnicity, a practice that could worsen tensions in a country where intercommunal violence is still a deadly threat.
"I do not believe that the graduation will be soon," James said.
Another trainee, Taban Albert, alleged that they were given expired food.
"Do they mean to kill us?" he asked.
He also alleged that funding of the centers is so tight that when a trainee dies, other trainees are told to pay for the burial.
"I've been in training for 11 months, so where do I get the money?" Albert asked.
Trainee Nancy Vincent said that with most people at the centers not receiving any salary, "we are washing our clothes with sand in the stream as if we were still in the bush."
The frustrations echo among some of South Sudan's security leaders.
Col. James Khor Chuol, the deputy chief instructor at the Rajaf Police Training Center, asserted that 38 people there had died, some due to lack of medicine.
"If somebody is sick, we are going to rush her or him to the hospital, but it will take time," he said.
South Sudan's defense minister, Angelina Teny, acknowledged "issues" in implementing the peace deal but defended the agreement.
"If there is any South Sudanese who thinks there is an alternative to this agreement, they'd better come to their senses, and they really should join us in ensuring its implementation," she told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
The defense minister also expressed concern about the training centers.
They "were not adequately prepared for lactating mothers, for pregnant women, and also people are human beings, you know, some women got pregnant there in the training centers," she said. "This all has not been catered for. We take it now as a lesson for the next phase."
Another problem was the lack of screening of people before they were admitted to training centers "because there was that pressure that something must happen," Teny said.