A ceasefire is urgently needed so that aid agencies can take medicine, food, plastic sheeting and other emergency supplies to tens of thousands of civilians trapped by fighting in South Sudan, the agencies said on Wednesday.
Three weeks of conflict have pushed the world's newest state to the brink of civil war. At least 1,000 people have been killed and 230,000 have fled into swamps, bush, United Nations peacekeeping bases and neighbouring countries.
On Tuesday, government officials and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar met briefly for the first time in neighbouring Ethiopia in talks aimed at agreeing a ceasefire.
Access to the rebel-controlled town of Bor, 190 km north of the capital, Juba, is the aid agencies' most pressing need. Some 9,000 civilians sheltering in the UN base there are running short of supplies.
DIRE MEDICAL SITUATION
"The medical situation is particularly dire, with drugs and other essential supplies about to run out in the UN clinic," the United Nations said in an update on Wednesday.
"Aid flights and movements outside the base were cancelled due to the ongoing fighting and the lack of the requisite flight safety assurances from the parties to the hostilities."
This has prevented the evacuation of 26 wounded patients from Bor to hospitals in Juba.
"We would like to get in there and do something. But at the moment, with it [Bor] swapping hands so many times and so much violence going on, we just can't," David Nash, head of mission in South Sudan for the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said in a telephone interview.
Bor has changed hands three times since the conflict began on Dec. 15 and government forces are fighting to recapture it.
On Jan. 3, aid workers left Bor's UN base during a lull in fighting to fetch food from a warehouse. But more is needed and a humanitarian flight with supplies is on standby in Juba, the United Nations said.
"Engagement with all parties to the hostilities is ongoing to secure safe access by aid agencies to civilians in need," it added.
Bor was the main supply hub for restive Jonglei State, the site of numerous conflicts since South Sudan's independence in 2011. The main aid agencies had several warehouses containing emergency stocks in the town.
"People are saying that Bor has been decimated," Helen Mould, South Sudan spokeswoman for Save the Children, said in an interview.
"All NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) have had their compounds looted, their cars stolen. So there is going to be very little there to work with even when the NGOs get back in."
DEAD DOCTOR NO USE
The fighting is also making it hard to reach other parts of the country, such as the northern towns of Bentiu in Unity State and Malakal in Upper Nile State, where 20,000 civilians are sheltering in UN bases.
"While there is actual ongoing fighting, it's very difficult for anyone to move and to provide assistance... You can't resupply. Patients can't get access and a dead doctor is no use to anyone," said Nash of MSF.
"We are hoping these peace talks will bring about a ceasefire so that we can get some access, find out what the position is and actually get aid into those areas."
Agencies are focusing assistance on 84,000 displaced people who fled 30 km downstream from Bor, crossed the River Nile to safety and are camped out in Awerial.
BURNED TO ASH
The insecurity and lack of roads make South Sudan a nightmare for humanitarian work.
"We are reliant on planes and helicopters to get us to these locations, which means we are reliant on the UN to assess that it is safe to fly," said Mould.
"Because the fighting is ongoing, it might be safe for 24 hours and then the next day it's unsafe again. What we really need to see is a consistent period of stability to let humanitarian aid into all these areas."
She said a short window of calm would not be enough to deliver the large quantities of aid required to Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.
Last month, the U.N. negotiated "hours of tranquillity" to fly supplies and staff into Malakal and to retrieve medicines from a warehouse in the town.
Malakal was destroyed by intense fighting and most of its 100,000 inhabitants have fled, according to the Danish Refugee Council.
"Most markets have been looted and some burned to ash," the UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, tweeted.
The United Nations said humanitarian access was also being hampered by "attacks on aid workers and assets, interference with humanitarian activities and other obstacles".