Geneva — The U.N. refugee agency reports basic relief supplies are being distributed to thousands of people who have been trapped by fighting in Malakal in South Sudan's Upper Nile State. The UNHCR says this is the first aid to reach displaced people in this region since fighting broke out in mid-December.
The U.N. refugee agency began distributing supplies to the displaced outside the U.N. base in Malakal earlier this week. The agency said it has given aid to more than 3,000 people and hoped to reach its target group of 10,000 by the end of next week.
Malakal, the capital of South Sudan's Upper Nile State, is located some 600 kilometers north of the country's capital Juba. Last month, the city was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the conflict between government and rebel forces erupted in mid-December.
The U.N. estimates around 38,000 people are displaced inside Malakal. This includes about 28,000 who are sheltering in the U.N. base. UNHCR spokeswoman, Fatoumata Le Jeune-Kaba said until now agencies have not been able to deliver aid to those living outside the UN compound because of widespread looting of humanitarian goods.
"We are taking advantage of the relative calm following the signing of the cease-fire of hostilities agreement between the warring forces on 23rd January to deliver aid to the most vulnerable... There are mainly women and children. There are many elderly people among the displaced as well. To reach the city of Malakal, some said they had to use boats to cross the river while others had to swim. Some women also said they walked for hours with their children before they could cross," she said.
Le Jeune-Kaba said most of those who have fled their homes are staying in schools and other sites. She said people feared the current calm in the country would not last. Many said they felt insecure despite the truce. She said the city of Malakal itself was largely deserted and civilians continued to flee to and from it.
Le Jeune-Kaba said the current truce was giving some people thinking of seeking asylum in neighboring countries pause to rethink their decision.
"Near the border with Uganda where... thousands of people had moved to because they wanted to see how the situation would go before they decide to cross and become refugees inside Uganda. For example, since the signing of the cease-fire agreement, some of these people felt they could stay within so they needed assistance because they were no longer living at home and had moved without much with them," she said.
The UNHCR estimates a staggering 740,000 people have been uprooted from their homes within South Sudan since fighting broke out in mid-December. In addition, it says the crisis also has forced more than 131,000 South Sudanese to seek refuge in neighboring Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.