Andrew is out. Megxit has happened. Can Sophie Wessex get the royals back on track? Christina Lamb joins her on a mission to South Sudan.
On Tuesday, March 3, the Court Circular, published in The Times every day, started pretty much as it has since 1803, when George III, frustrated by inaccurate royal reporting, appointed a "court newsman" to inform newspapers about royal engagements.
The Queen held an Investiture at Buckingham Palace this morning.
The Prince of Wales, President, this morning visited the Royal College of Music.
Anyone reading to the end might have done a double-take. The Countess of Wessex arrived at Juba International Airport, South Sudan.
The world's newest nation, South Sudan, is also one of its most dangerous. Over the past six years about 400,000 people have been killed in the civil war and more than four million have fled their homes. The International SOS website classifies the risk of travelling to the country as "extreme".
Not the usual royal engagement, in other words. Indeed, not since Diana, Princess of Wales visited Angola in 1997 has a royal wife headed to such a trouble spot — and by then she had long since left the Firm. By contrast, Sophie Wessex remains married to the Queen's youngest son, Prince Edward, the only one of Her Majesty's four children not to have divorced. Nor is it the usual royal cause. South Sudan is an epicentre of war rape. Few places are more dangerous for women — between January 2018 and January 2020 the United Nations documented incidents of conflict-related sexual violence involving at least 1,423 victims, of whom 302 were children.
The trip, on which I am to accompany Sophie, is part of her work campaigning against sexual violence in conflict. She first met victims of this, the world's most-neglected war crime, on a trip to Kosovo last year, where an estimated 20,000 women were raped by Serb forces during the 1998-99 war, yet there have still been no convictions. Since then she has also travelled to Sierra Leone to meet victims of war rape, among them elderly women and children.
"I heard stories where you feel I can't believe I'm hearing this," she says. "If I can prod the consciences of those who may be able to do more to try and prevent it, and can help get justice for survivors, I will do everything I can."
In other words, here is a countess who has found her calling.
The watchers: Scrupulous eyes kept on William and Kate
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🇸🇸 𝑴𝒂𝒚 𝑰 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒏𝒌 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒑𝒆𝒐𝒑𝒍𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝑺𝒐𝒖𝒕𝒉 𝑺𝒖𝒅𝒂𝒏 𝒇𝒐𝒓 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒂𝒓𝒎𝒕𝒉 𝒐𝒇 𝒚𝒐𝒖𝒓 𝒘𝒆𝒍𝒄𝒐𝒎𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑰 𝒘𝒊𝒔𝒉 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒘𝒆𝒍𝒍 𝒂𝒔 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒎𝒐𝒗𝒆 𝒂𝒘𝒂𝒚 𝒇𝒓𝒐𝒎 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒅𝒂𝒓𝒌𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒄𝒐𝒏𝒇𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒕 𝒕𝒐𝒘𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒔 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒍𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒐𝒑𝒑𝒐𝒓𝒕𝒖𝒏𝒊𝒕𝒚. 𝑰 𝒘𝒊𝒔𝒉 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒂𝒍𝒍 𝒂 𝑯𝒂𝒑𝒑𝒚 𝑰𝒏𝒕𝒆𝒓𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒂𝒍 𝑾𝒐𝒎𝒆𝒏’𝒔 𝑫𝒂𝒚! 𝑾𝒐𝒎𝒆𝒏 𝑶𝒉 𝒀𝒆𝒊! 𝑴𝒂𝒓𝒂 𝑶𝒉 𝒀𝒆𝒊! (‘Three cheers for women!) . The Countess of Wessex has made the first Royal visit to South Sudan during International Women’s Week. Her visit marks a year since she announced her commitment to supporting the UK’s efforts in the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, which she pledged on International Women’s Day in March 2019. . In Malakal, The Countess met survivors of gender-based violence; men who are working to bring greater gender equality into their homes and communities, and soldiers and officers who have been delivering outreach projects to improve safety for everyone in their country. . In Juba, Her Royal Highness spoke to female political leaders and peacebuilders to discuss the importance of women playing a full role in building a peaceful and stable future for all of South Sudan. She also learnt about the role of Church leaders in promoting peace and to reconciling communities. The Countess visited a secondary school during the trip to learn about the UK supported Girls’ Education promotes gender equality and empowering girls through education. . On the final day of her visit, The Countess of Wessex attended an event to celebrate International Women’s Day, in collaboration with “Born to Lead”, a group of local civil society activists supported by Oxfam whose mission is to help South Sudanese women recognise and realise their leadership potential. The Countess viewed the market-place style stalls show-casing the work of talented women artists and activists, and photographs of inspiring South Sudanese women, as well as meeting musicians, singers and poets, who had come together to celebrate the role of women. . #InternationalWomensDay #iwd2020
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It hasn't always been so. Once upon a time she and Edward were the black sheep. Her attempts to juggle royal life with a career were brought to a spectacular end in 2001 when, two years after their wedding, she was duped by the "fake sheikh" reporter, Mazher Mahmood. Believing him to be a potential client for her PR company, she was taped offering embarrassing opinions about the then prime minister, whom she derided as "President Blair" and his wife, Cherie ("horrid, absolutely horrid"). She referred to the Queen as "the old dear". The couple disappeared from view, eventually re-emerging as full-time royals. Edward's much-derided TV career (1987's It's a Royal Knockout was his idea) and production company were wound up.
Now, in a year that has seen Prince Harry and Meghan decamp to Los Angeles and Prince Andrew retreat from public life to contemplate past actions, Sophie has emerged as Buckingham Palace's safest pair of hands. After years of keeping a low profile, she carried out 236 official engagements in 2019, the highest of any royal spouse — and more than Prince William. On visits to Balmoral and Sandringham she has been spotted in the coveted back seat of the Rolls with the Queen for Sunday morning rides to church. And since Covid-19 hit she has been bagging up groceries at a food bank and cooking meals for NHS workers. At 55, the woman once unfavourably compared to "a Bulgarian flight attendant" is even winning plaudits for her style. "From frumpy to fabulous" ran a recent headline.
If anyone in the family could relate to Meghan, surely it would be her. Sophie Rhys-Jones came from a middle-class family, her mother a secretary and her father a sales director for a tyre company. She was working for Capital Radio when she first met Prince Edward, and then moved to a PR firm running campaigns for Mr Blobby and Thomas the Tank Engine.
The Wessexes also had their run-ins with Fleet Street, Edward beseeching editors that they stop "destroying our private life and, more importantly, Sophie's life". Shortly before their wedding, The Sun published topless photos of her taken 11 years earlier with the DJ Chris Tarrant.
"Remember I'd had five years to adjust," she says of her and Edward's long relationship, compared with Meghan and Harry's whirlwind courtship, "and for our six-month engagement I was even staying in Buckingham Palace. Not that you necessarily know how it will pan out."
She is said to have become a confidante to Meghan. Frogmore Cottage, where the Sussexes lived before fleeing across the Atlantic, is just 16km from Bagshot Park, Sophie's home with Edward. "We all try to help any new member of the family," she says. But it was noticeable that on their final public engagement as royals in March, Harry and Meghan sat next to Edward and Sophie in Westminster Abbey for the annual Commonwealth Day service.
"I just hope they will be happy," is all Sophie will say now.
Until a few hours before departure I was expecting the trip to South Sudan to be called off. First we had to wait for a peace deal between the government and warring factions. This was finally signed but was of limited reassurance seeing as the previous 12 had all collapsed. Then there was the coronavirus pandemic, already taking hold in Italy. With more vice-presidents than ventilators, South Sudan is one of the last places on earth you'd want to get sick.
I was intrigued to see the entourage that taxpayers would be funding. Would her lady-in-waiting, Annabelle Galletley, be on board to assist with dress and make-up? Would she follow Diana's lead and take a butler? In fact it was just her chief of staff, Alex Stonor, a debonair former Grenadier Guard who served in Afghanistan and Somalia, and two close protection officers, plus Rosy Cave, head of the Foreign Office Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.
South Sudan probably wouldn't exist if not for the unlikely involvement of George Clooney. The Hollywood star came here when it was still part of Sudan, the Christian south being repressed by the Muslim north in a war in which up to 2.5 million people died. He used his earnings from Nespresso ads to rent satellite space to reveal atrocities to the world and lobby politicians. America helped to broker a deal that led to an independence referendum in January 2011. Clooney was there to celebrate, describing it as "mind-blowing".
Within two years, however, a new war erupted following an attempted coup that President Salva Kiir accused his vice-president Riek Machar of plotting. Clashes broke out, splitting South Sudan along ethnic lines, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer. Once again civilians bore the brunt. Fathers had their throats cut in front of their families, mothers were raped and children were abducted and forced to become child soldiers and sex slaves.
"People are very tired of war," says Father James Oyet Latansio, general secretary of South Sudan Council of Churches, at our first meeting after landing. He was sitting at a table with three bishops and six colourfully dressed women who have been working at the local level to bring clans together.
Religious leaders played a crucial role in the latest peace agreement, which came about after an unprecedented spiritual retreat at the Vatican in spring 2019 for the country's warring leaders. The Pope, who co-hosted the retreat with the Archbishop of Canterbury, stunned Kiir and Machar by going down on his hands and knees and kissing their feet. "I'm asking you as a brother," he begged. "Stay in peace."
"That moment was key," Latansio says. "These men can never be friends, but they can be partners." The war, he says, had been particularly hard for women in South Sudan. "When war breaks out, the burden falls on women."
The women in the room speak of the prevalence of rape and the difficulty of victims coming forward. "They even fear going to hospital, as they might be seen. People will say she's a dirty woman rather than castigating the man with a gun who raped her. There is no justice or rehab centre." The church has set up a toll-free telephone centre called Power to Forgive, where women can talk to counsellors.
After 15 hours of travel and no sleep, I am struggling to stay awake in the 40C heat. Fortunately the nightly curfew means eating early. We sit down for a curry with four feisty female activists in the ambassador's small bungalow, Sophie seated just beneath a picture of the Queen.
Talk soon turns to corruption, the main reason the country returned to war so quickly after independence. South Sudanese diplomats estimate that US$10 billion ($15 billion) in oil revenue has disappeared since independence — about the same amount as the US has poured in as aid. The money is rumoured to leave the country in suitcases to Nairobi and Addis Ababa, neighbouring capitals where all the leaders have villas.
As we eat it becomes clear that the women are confused about the remit of the royal family. Pointing out that some of those implicated in the corruption have British citizenship, one asks Sophie: "Can you ask the royal family why they allow this?"
The conversation moves on to the plight of South Sudanese women. Under international pressure, the warring leaders had agreed to a chapter on sexual violence in the peace deal. With the justice system in disarray, UN officials then helped to design a mobile court system to address gender-based violence (GBV). It felt like a step forward, but the women tell us they are doubtful. "They say before GBV we need wildlife courts to stop poaching."
The peace deal guarantees 35 per cent representation for women. "Some of the women parliamentarians are handpicked," complains one. "We call them 'men in skirts'."
"Women who don't support other women can be harder to deal with than men," Sophie replies.
Early the next morning we fly to Malakal, South Sudan's second city after Juba. Everything is destroyed — ruined buildings, walls peppered with bullet holes, charred ground where once there were shacks, the silent streets littered with burnt-out buses and motorbikes. The only signs of life are a single line of laundry and a woman walking with a bucket of water on her head. Sophie looks round in horror. "I've never been anywhere so devastated," she says.
Yet Malakal, in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, was once a thriving city. "It used to be where you came to sell things, change money, hire a boat, so much hustle and bustle," says Matthew Stearns, country director of International Medical Corps (IMC), who has flown with us from Juba. The past few years have seen control of the city switch back and forth between Nuer rebels and the government forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), with controlling factions turning on the Shilluk tribe that dominated the town.
Most of the surviving population fled to the heavily guarded Protection of Civilian (POC) camp run by UN peacekeepers. It is there that we start our day, climbing a watchtower to look over what is now a far smaller city.
The countess, dressed in a blue jacket and white cotton trousers, hair pulled back in a simple clip, puts on her Ray-Bans and scales the ladder in her high wedges. From the top we can see women collecting firewood beyond the barbed wire. The camp co-ordinator tells us they walk three hours each way. Sometimes they are attacked by soldiers.
Afterwards we drive through the camp, people crammed into corrugated-iron shacks amid trickles of sewage, and arrive at a "women-friendly space". Inside, dressed in purple cloth printed with Union Jacks and the words "My Body, Everyday, Everywhere", women clap and ululate in welcome as the interpreter struggles to explain what a countess is.
At the back is a line of old Singer sewing machines and on the wall is a programme of activities: Monday crochet, Tuesday embroidery, Wednesday and Thursday tailoring, Friday beading. One woman with a scarred face stands up. "We're so happy you're here, but we need lanterns so we can go to the latrine at night without being attacked," she says.
The women have horrific tales of rape, abduction of children and domestic abuse.
Julia, 25, her hair in cornrows, lives with her mother in the camp and earns money making bedsheets at the women's centre. There is a scar under her left eye. "I was nine when I was raped in Malakal by soldiers from the Sudanese army," she says. "Later my father was killed. And in 2014 we fled here.
"I like coming to this centre because I feel safe and human," she adds. "Recently my family arranged me a man, but he was drinking and we fought. So he hit me and I ended up in hospital." She touches the scar.
Not surprisingly people prefer to stay in the POC than return to the ghost town that is Malakal. However grim, at least there is some security, a hospital and food aid.
I didn't expect my first visit to the Nile to be like this," Sophie exclaims. "I thought it would be in Egypt by some temples."
We are standing on a muddy bank of the White Nile. Just behind us are the ruins of Malakal hospital, where about 3,000 people sheltered during fighting in 2014 and some were shot dead. Others were killed while seeking refuge in the city's churches. Across the road IMC has opened a small hospital and we enter the maternity ward to find two women lying under mosquito nets with their newborns. Sophie sits with one mother for a while and pats her hand while Peter, the midwife, shows me the labour room. "We don't have emergency drugs or IV," he says, "and we have many abortion cases where the wounds go septic."
At the end of the day HRH The Countess of Wessex met senior female politicians, from different political parties. To hear about the challenges they face as women leaders. And their determination to achieve at least 35% women’s participation. pic.twitter.com/QeCEFNO9db— Chris Trott (@ChrisTrott) March 5, 2020
Across the way, a skeletal child sits on a mat, lolling head too big for their emaciated body. This is the face of a manmade conflict that has left half the population at risk of a famine of "biblical proportions", according to the World Food Programme.
"We have more than 30 cases of severe malnutrition coming in each day," says a nurse. "There's no food. If more people came back to town it would be worse."
Behind the building nine men sitting on plastic chairs are watched by a few goats chewing at the dry ground. The men are participants in the Male Engagement Project, a 16-week programme that aims to improve behaviour towards women. To date 160 men have taken the course, encouraged by some free snacks.
"When I started sweeping the compound and helping to fetch water, people would ask, 'Why are you doing things that are the responsibilities of wives?' " says a talkative man named Gabriel. "My family thought I was crazy. But after I joined I realised women are human beings like me, so now I send my wife to school."
"I presume you asked her," Sophie laughs.
"The most surprising thing I learnt was I could cook for myself rather than get hungry waiting for my wife to do it," says a man called Mario. "My fear was if we give equality to women, they will control everything and I will have no rights, but I realised, 'No, if you do these things, she will feel good about you.' "
One of the trainers, Gertrude, points out that it is not just the male mindset that needs changing. "Patriarchy is so culturally ingrained that some women say, 'If I'm not beaten, I feel I am not loved.' "
On the plane back to Juba, the countess muses over what we have seen. "You read your brief, but don't really know what to expect, then get there and, oh my God, this is just a drop in the ocean, what can I do? At my most depressed times I think what's the point, but then, like today, they ask, 'Please can we have more torches.' Even if I made the tiniest difference … if we can get them torches, encourage the men, then it was worth going."
Does she talk to Prince Edward about what she hears? "My husband knows what I do, but I don't tell him intimate details." Does she discuss them with the Queen?
"She is interested in my trips, particularly in Commonwealth countries. I don't know how many countries she has visited. Every time I come back from a place she has been there."
Today the Countess visited a 🇬🇧 #UKAid-supported school. Access to education is crucial for girls and @DFID_UK has helped more than a quarter of a million girls stay in class in South Sudan. 🇸🇸 #SSOT @GirlsEdSS @liz_sugg #LeaveNoGirlBehind pic.twitter.com/gHAoKeQcr6— British Embassy Juba 🇬🇧🇸🇸 (@UKinSouthSudan) March 5, 2020
I tell her that I travelled with Diana when she went to Angola to highlight the dangers of landmines. I wonder if she is hoping to have the same impact.
"I'm not able to raise the profile by that extent," she says. "I'm not going to be able to change things the way she did, but I hope it keeps it from sliding off the agenda. I won't let it, it's too important."
We talk about the maternity ward in the hospital. Her first child, Lady Louise Windsor, was born a month early, at just 4lb 9oz, after Sophie's blood pressure dropped dangerously and she lost nine pints of blood. "It was very scary," she says. "She had a severe squint and had corrective surgery. It's still not perfect, but none of us are."
When she opened the neonatal ward at Frimley Park Hospital, Surrey, in 2014 and met the midwives who had saved her life, she broke down in tears. "For the first 10 years after she was born, I found it very hard to go to prem wards. It brought the whole thing back, but I've learnt to cope."
She campaigns for ending avoidable blindness, among the more than 70 organisations she works with, ranging from disability to agriculture and fashion.
Will she do more now Harry and Meghan are opting out? "We've all got our own little portfolios. I don't see anything changing, but if we're asked to do more … I don't know because it hasn't really happened."
A week after our return I am in a very different world as I turn onto a long drive leading through Bagshot Park, the country estate built for Queen Victoria's third son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, and gifted to the Wessexes on their marriage.
The house itself is vast. Its 57 rooms include a grand billiard room with 241 wood panels carved by Indian craftsmen. Running costs must be enormous — as the couple have no income, they are met by the Queen.
I am taken along a wood-panelled corridor, against which rests a sleek racing bike — Sophie recently cycled 715km from Edinburgh to Buckingham Palace to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. She is waiting in a large sunny sitting room dominated by two portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught by John Singer Sargent, and crammed with framed photos of her, Edward and their two children, Lady Louise, 16, and James, Viscount Severn, 12.
We sit socially distanced on separate sofas and chat about the trip. "Not too fluffy for you?" she jokes, referring to my usual work as a war correspondent. "It feels like a double life to go from South Sudan to here," she says. "I have to compartmentalise."
We muse about the schoolgirls we met on the trip who told us that although they receive British-funded allowances meant for school supplies and sanitary towels, the money is taken by their families. And of the women we heard about who had been released from sexual captivity by the rebels, only to return to their captors.
I ask if she sees herself as a feminist. "Now there's a question. I suppose I probably am. I believe in equality for everyone."
Do the Wessexes practice equality in their own home?
"Actually we do," she says. "I wasn't well when I got back, so my husband has been doing the school run. If one of us goes away, we try to make sure the other is around."
Does the Earl of Wessex cook? "Yes, sometimes," she says. "He is very good at barbecues, and the children love those. He takes our son fishing, does a lot of riding with our daughter, he is very engaged as a father."
Edward, who worked as a production assistant on Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals as a younger man, now keeps himself busy running the Duke of Edinburgh's scheme as well as working with organisations that reflect his stage-struck past. He is a patron of numerous ballet, theatrical and orchestral groups, and, I am told, attended a great deal of concerts and plays before lockdown. The more far-flung adventuring, however, he leaves to his wife.
How does she try to give the children a normal life? She laughs as we look around the enormous house. "What's normal? They go to a regular school [they both attend top independent schools]. They go to friends for sleepovers and parties. At weekends we do lots of dog walking and stay with friends. I guess not everyone's grandparents live in a castle, but where you are going is not the important part, or who they are. When they are with the Queen, she is their grandmother.
"We try to bring them up with the understanding they are very likely to have to work for a living," she adds. "Hence we made the decision not to use HRH titles. They have them and can decide to use them from 18, but I think it's highly unlikely."
Lady Louise was about to take GCSEs before the schools closed. "She's working hard and will do A-levels. I hope she goes to university. I wouldn't force her, but if she wants to. She's quite clever, so I think probably, whereas James I don't know."
Was it frustrating when you had to stop working, I ask. She sighs. "Certainly it took me a while to find my feet. The frustration was I had to reduce my expectations of what I could actually do. I couldn't turn up at a charity and go, right, I think you should be doing this, because that's what I was used to doing in my working life. I had to take a really big step back and go, OK, they want you to be the icing on the cake, the person to come in to thank their volunteers and funders, not necessarily to tell them how to run their communications plan."
The room we are sitting in is large enough to house a number of elephants, but there is one very big one I can no longer put off mentioning. Just a few miles away in Windsor Royal Lodge lives her disgraced brother-in-law, Prince Andrew, who faces allegations by Virginia Roberts-Giuffre that the late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein forced her to have sex with him on three occasions. Andrew strongly denies all claims of wrongdoing. Given that she is campaigning for justice for survivors of victims of sexual violence, how does she view the Duke of York's friendship with Epstein and allegations he had sex with Roberts-Giuffre?
Her voice drops. "I can't comment on that," she says.
It must be awkward, though, I venture.
"I am sorry. You can understand I can't respond."
The clock ticks loudly in the silent room.
I search for safer territory. What does she see as the role of a royal family in the 21st century?
"Gosh!" she exclaims. "I would hope the consistency of us being there, the Queen being such an amazing monarch as she has been for so long. I think we'll all be busy post this virus. There will be many people affected who are going to need a lot of support. The whole country will need a lot of support moving forward."
And with the Sussexes gone and Andrew retired, will we be seeing more of her?
"I am pretty busy already, so I'm not sure how much more I can do," she says. "There are only so many hours in the day. People may pay more attention to what I am doing, but I remain as busy as I have ever been."
Written by: Christina Lamb
© The Times of London