Juba — The overwhelming job of providing relief to the more than half a million displaced and wounded in South Sudan may have gotten a little easier with the signing of a ceasefire agreement last night in Addis Ababa, which is set to go into effect today.
The government and rebel groups, who have been locked in more than five weeks of fighting, agreed to freeze their positions and open corridors to humanitarian groups desperately trying to deliver food and medicine to those in need. Relief workers are warning that the scale of the crisis will prove to be even larger as they gain greater access. Meanwhile, doubts linger about whether the agreement will hold.
The fighting in South Sudan started late on Dec. 15 in military barracks in Juba and then spread quickly around the capital city. President Salva Kiir has accused his political rival and former deputy Riek Machar of launching a coup against the government - a charge Machar has denied. But the former vice president has acknowledged that he is now openly in rebellion against the government.
Jonglei's capital, Bor, which government forces reclaimed late last week, is decimated and bodies are still scattered in the streets.
In the weeks after the initial violence, clashes between the army and anti-government forces have been reported in at least seven states. Rebels seized three state capitals, though the government has since regained control of the towns.
Aid organisations report thousands of people are suspected to have been killed and wounded, though it is impossible to gather an accurate estimate at the moment, because access to many areas of the country is still limited. What is clear is that the five weeks of fighting have created a severe humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations reports that at least 494,000 people were internally displaced - nearly one-tenth of the population. Less than 220,000 of them have received any assistance so far. Another 86,000 people fled to neighbouring countries.
Jacob Kurtzer, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the known needs are massive.
"We've seen people displaced without any personal effects," he told IPS. "Leaving their homes without basic shelter, very little food. We're always concerned about sanitation. And the last would be the medical care, in particular, for the people who have been weapon wounded, to be able to respond to their medical needs. We're trying to meet all of those needs simultaneously."
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) flew in 70 tonnes of emergency supplies and medicines this week to distribute to women and children across the country.
At least 70,000 people have crowded into U.N. bases around the country to escape the fighting. But the cramped conditions and a shortage of toilets have created a high risk of disease transmission. UNICEF has warned of an outbreak of measles at some of the camps, which has prompted two emergency vaccination campaigns.
And that is only for those people the aid groups have been able to reach.
Dermot Carty, UNICEF's deputy director for emergency operations, told IPS that the fluid nature of the fighting made it nearly impossible to predict where they could even maintain a sustained response.
UNICEF's plans to reach 70,000 displaced people this week in Awerial County in northeastern Jonglei state had to be postponed at the last minute, he said, when unexpected fighting broke out.
"We were all ready to go and the security situation suddenly changed and we had to stand down."
With a ceasefire now in place, the government, the U.N. and humanitarian groups are hopeful those interruptions will stop and they will be able to start reaching the hundreds of thousands of people who have gone without assistance so far. But better access is also likely to reveal an even bigger demand for assistance.
Paul Akol - a national lawmaker from Jonglei and a member of Kiir's Crisis Management Committee - travelled with a team to Jonglei's capital, Bor, which government forces reclaimed late last week. He said the town is decimated and bodies are still scattered in the streets.
"These towns are towns in name, but nothing exists on the ground," he told IPS. "The houses are on the ground. The shops are on the ground. The little infrastructure that we built during the interim period has been completely destroyed." He said it would take months, if not years, of assistance to help people start rebuilding their lives.
He suspects emergency response teams will encounter the same situation as they enter other areas that have been subject to intense fighting - when they are able to get there.
In a country that was already difficult to navigate - there are few paved roads and much of South Sudan is prone to floods during the months-long rainy season - the wide-scale destruction from the fighting has only made it more difficult and more expensive to get around.
The ICRC's Kurtzer said his organisation already anticipates South Sudan "will be one of our most expensive responses in the next year. To a certain extent, that reflects the challenge of operating in this particular environment. But I think it also reflects the scale of the needs."
The U.N. has already put out an emergency appeal for 209 dollars million just to respond to the immediate crisis and has said the country will require 1.14 billion dollars in assistance over the next year.
And that is only if the situation stays where it currently is. Oxfam Country Director Jose Barahona told IPS that this is not a guarantee.
"We don't expect that the ceasefire means there's no more shooting the following day. There are a lot of people with guns out there. All sorts of different groups armed. I think we cannot be naïve."
It is also unclear whether the loose coalition of anti-government forces are all allied with Machar and feel bound by the agreement.
That could mean continued danger for hundreds of thousands of people across the country and ongoing difficulties for the aid agencies that are trying to help them.