Amid sharp confusion in South Sudan as ethnic fighting escalated and the army warned of a mobilizing fighting force called the ‘White Army’ that is allied with one of the main protagonists in the week long old conflict, the situation is fast escalating into a war despite best efforts to stop hostility.
As fighting continues across South Sudan, the United Nations is reporting that some 1,000 people may have been killed, while aid agencies estimate that in a worst-case scenario, thousands more could be displaced or will require humanitarian assistance.
There are also serious concerns about the safety and health of the 58,000 people who have sought refuge at UN bases around the country, as aid organizations work to provide emergency food, water and sanitation facilities to prevent disease outbreaks.
“We are extremely concerned about the escalation in the situation in South Sudan,” the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Country Representative, Iyorlumun Uhaa, said. “We’re really facing a huge and growing humanitarian crisis.”
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), aid agencies need an estimated US$166 million in emergency funding from now until March 2014 for the needs of those affected by the violence.
The fighting in South Sudan began on 15 December 2013, when clashes erupted between two factions in military barracks in the national capital, Juba. President Salva Kiir blamed the incident on a failed coup attempt by his former deputy, Riek Machar, which Machar denied.
However, the former vice president has told several news agencies that he is now in open rebellion against the government.
African and other international leaders have struggled to bring Nuer and Machar to the negotiating table to broker a ceasefire.
The violence in Juba has since subsided, but clashes have been reported in seven of the country’s 10 states. Forces loyal to Machar are in control of Unity state. They also held Bor, the capital of neighbouring Jonglei state, but lost control of the town to government forces on 24 December.
The government has also reported continued fighting in oil-rich Upper Nile state. Michael White, the head of mission in South Sudan for the medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said “over the last couple of days there has been sustained fighting” in the area, and they have received 70 people with gunshot wounds at their hospital in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state.
The UN Security Council voted on 24 December to nearly double the number of peacekeepers in the country -from 7,000 to 12,500-while the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Hilden Johnson, warned that the UN Mission is “overstretched with current protection obligations related to the civilians in our camps and making sure they are safe”.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, meanwhile, suggested that Uganda troops might directly intervene in the fight, which could prompt other nations to do the same.
The conflict has its true roots in the inability or unwillingness of South Sudan’s leadership to build unity for the new nation among its ethnic groups.
In areas where the fighting has stopped, aid agencies are scrambling to meet the needs of thousands of people uprooted from their homes and still too afraid to return. This includes Juba, where at least 500 people were killed in four days of fighting, according to the UN, and 25,000 people are still sheltering at two UN camps.
UNICEF’s Uhaa said most of those living in the camps are women and children. “In areas around Juba where we have access, the major issues for children relate to the separation from their families,” he said. “A lot of the children came to the camps [after] being separated from their families.”
According to Uhaa, UN and other agencies are trying to provide emergency supplies of food, water and temporary shelter to as many people as possible. They are also building latrines to discourage open defecation, which heightens the risk of an outbreak of waterborne diseases, like cholera.
Wendy Taeuber, country director of the NGO, International Rescue Committee (IRC), told IRIN that overcrowding in the camps has hampered their efforts to address cases of gender-based violence that might have occurred during the fighting.
“There’s no safe space for women in the camps,” she said. “If you even want to meet with a woman to hear about how she’s feeling in the camp, there’s nowhere. Everyone is surrounded by hundreds of other people and there’s not a safe space to even have a conversation.”
The situation in the country’s more remote areas is unclear, with no way of confirming casualties or displacements.
The Jonglei State Relief and Rehabilitation director, Gabriel Deng Ajak, said the government still has no clear picture of what the needs are in the Bor area, and this is further complicated by reports of fighting on the outskirts of the city. He said as many as 100,000 people may have been displaced, of whom 15,000 are still sheltering at the UN base in the town.
“A very huge humanitarian response will be required, because all the civilian population in and around Bor have lost their livelihood,” Ajak said. He added that the government is launching an emergency assessment in the coming days to determine how extensive the needs are.
Peacekeepers and aid workers are also in danger. On 20 December, two Indian peacekeepers and a clinical health officer working for the International Medical Corps were killed when local youths overran a UN base in Akobo in Jonglei state.
MSF’s White said it is critical that they “have free access in all the areas where we work”, and “What we’re ensuring is that our teams can continue to work, can continue to provide life-saving medical activities. That will remain our goal.”
The 2014-2016 Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) for South Sudan reflects an improving humanitarian situation amid a slowdown in the arrival of new refugees and returnees from Sudan and overall improvements in food security, says a senior UN official.
However, a significant proportion of the South Sudanese population still needs food and livelihood support as well as clean water, sanitation and health assistance.
“While humanitarian needs in South Sudan remain immense, the situation has shown concrete improvements on several fronts,” Vincent Lelei, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in South Sudan said.
“Humanitarian needs have reduced for the first time since 2011. The arrival of refugees from Sudan has slowed down and returns of South Sudanese have continued to decrease. Food security overall improved for many people.”
In 2014, OCHA anticipates that some 4.4 million people in South Sudan will be in humanitarian need, compared to 4.6 million in 2013. “The reduction is due to lower refugee and returnee arrivals anticipated, and less people expected to be food insecure,” added Lelei.
Of the 4.4 million, aid agencies are aiming to target the most vulnerable 3.1 million individuals in 2014. The country’s population is 12 million.
The three-year CAP requested a sum of US$1.1 billion to meet the needs of the 3.1 million ($355 per person), focusing on emergency health, food and nutrition support.
According to Lelei, humanitarian assistance will be provided across 12 sectors including: 2.3 million people who will be targeted with food and livelihood support; 2.9 million people who will be assisted with clean water and sanitation; and two million people who will be provided with health assistance.
“We anticipate that South Sudan will host 270,000 refugees by the end of next year. These people will be supported with assistance including shelter, food, education and nutritional support,” he said.
South Sudan is home to an estimated 225,557 refugees, according to OCHA. The refugees are mainly from Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
In mid-October, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) appealed for humanitarian assistance for some 2,500 new Sudanese arrivals from South Kordofan in Kodok and Lelo (in Fashoda and Malakal counties respectively).
“The people we have seen in Upper Nile State [northern South Sudan] have walked 5-10 days, fleeing from their homes in Warni and Kau-Nyaro, southeastern South Kordofan State. Some explained they had left their homes due to the ongoing conflict and growing lack of food after two consecutive poor harvest seasons, as well as limited supply routes,” MSF operational manager Alberto Cristina said recently.
“They are already weak when they arrive and without humanitarian assistance their condition will only worsen.”
MSF is providing treatment to children under five at its ambulatory therapeutic feeding programme in Kodok. The organization also has mobile clinics in Lelo and Gholo areas (all in Upper Nile State, South Sudan), Cristina said.
South Sudan has also been grappling with internal conflict in Jonglei State as well as natural disasters. In late October, the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) condemned attacks against civilians in Jonglei’s Twic East County.
An estimated 159,130 people, representing only those who have been accessed and assisted, remain internally displaced in South Sudan since January, according to OCHA, which notes that “due to access constraints, this figure under-represents the actual number of people displaced by violence in the country.”
South Sudan was also recently hit by flooding which affected some 199,003 people.
Besides its humanitarian scope, the 2014-2016 consolidated appeal will also encompass components aimed at enhancing community resilience and strengthening national capacity to deliver basic services.
“Placing resilience and national institutions at the forefront of aid work will help create a South Sudan which is better able to care for its citizens in times of crisis,” stated Awut Deng Acuil, South Sudan’s minister of humanitarian affairs and disaster management, speaking about the launch of the appeal on 14 November.
The South Sudan elites inherited vast natural wealth and boundless international good will following the historic referendum, but they squandered both.