South Sudan is continuing to reel from internal conflict that ignited in the capital Juba a little more than a year ago and quickly spread throughout the country. On December 15th, 2013, fighting erupted in Juba between soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir. More than one year on the fighting continues, primarily in Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states in the north.
While there was a temporary reprieve during the rainy season, in which movement throughout much of the country is very difficult, the recent start of the dry season has seen a resumption in clashes. On January 4th, there were reports of fighting near the towns of Bentiu and Nasir in the north.
Over the past year, the conflict has forced nearly two million people from their homes. Currently, my colleague, Michael Boyce, and I are on a field mission to the region to assess the situation for displaced South Sudanese people.
In Ethiopia, there are nearly 200,000 South Sudanese living as refugees, mostly in camps in the western Gambela region. This massive influx over a short period of time has strained resources and quickly overcrowded the land that the Ethiopian government had designated for camps. Doctors Without Borders describes the situation for refugees as “critical” – with high rates of malnutrition, inadequate shelter, and flooding during the rainy season. With a renewal of fighting in South Sudan, aid workers are expecting a new flow of refugees into Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has identified sites for two additional refugee camps to accommodate the new arrivals, but time is short to make adequate preparations.
Within South Sudan, there are 1.4 million people displaced internally. These people are living throughout the countryside, mainly in host communities. The humanitarian response has fortunately reached many of those affected, and reduced the overall number of people at emergency levels of food insecurity. But the violence and displacement has prevented many farmers from planting their crops, and there are serious concerns that malnutrition will increase toward the later months of the dry season – from January to March – when food supplies begin to run low. In the immediate term, the UN estimates that up to 50,000 children under the age of five are at risk of dying if they are not treated for severe acute malnutrition.
Overall, the UN predicts that 2.5 million people will face severe food insecurity over the next three months. The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is now operating under a revised mandate that prioritizes the protection of civilians, but the newly approved force of 12,500 soldiers has not yet been reached, and UNMISS is struggling to provide adequate protection outside and away from UN bases. Currently, over 100,000 displaced are living under the protection of the UN at several sites around the country, but the conditions are miserable due to overcrowding and flooding.
Peace talks between Kiir and Machar are expected to resume next week, but the prospects for a lasting resolution to the conflict are dim. Within this devastating man-made disaster, RI plans to assess the effectiveness of the international community’s response to provide care and protection for the millions of civilians who have been impacted by the conflict.
Photo: Children in an IDP camp on a UN base in Juba, South Sudan. Mar. 2014