1 April 2014

South Sudan: After the Fire, Before the Rain

Biel Boutrosb was in his family home in Juba, South Sudan's capital, when he heard gunfire on the evening of December 15th last year. He soon realised that the shots were coming closer to his neighbourhood.

Mr Boutrosb, who is 32 years old and works for the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy, based in Juba, feared that soldiers from the presidential guard were targeting homes of suspected opponents. He fled for his life.

He boarded a plane to Uganda and from there flew to South Africa, where he has family. "I am still receiving death threats from government loyalists," he said. "If I return, my life will be endangered."

Mr Boutrosb is one of about 900,000 people forced to leave their homes since the fighting began, and among an estimated 200,000 who have fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The strife in the oil-rich state began as a political conflict between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his former vice-president, whom Mr Kiir summarily dismissed in July last year. The situation turned violent on December 15th 2013 when fighting erupted in a military barracks in Juba between the two men's supporters.

In the weeks that followed, the violence quickly spread to four of the country's ten states, driven by factions "seeking to exploit the chaos and confusion to pursue ethnic driven agendas", said Joe Contreras, acting spokesperson for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Most of South Sudan's displaced are either hiding in the bush, packed into crowded United Nations compounds, or languishing in refugee camps in a host of neighbouring countries, according to UNMISS.

More than 23,000 South Sudanese have migrated to Kenya since hostilities started last December, according to the UNHCR. Most have found refuge in the Kakuma camp in Turkana, in north-west Kenya. At the end of January, more than 132,000 refugees from across the region were living in Kakuma, which is the world's second-largest refugee camp, according to the UNHCR.

The largest is in Dadaab, Kenya, about 100km from the Somali border, with about 369,000 exiles.

In Uganda, 80,000 South Sudanese are staying in the Adjumani and Arua refugee camps close to the border with South Sudan, while in Ethiopia, 65,000 are tented in the Leitchor camp in western Gambella, according to the refugee agency.

More than 42,000 South Sudanese refugees are in Sudan, from which South Sudan won its independence in 2011, concentrated in the south and western Kordofan regions, and in White Nile state. Within South Sudan close to 80,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) are sheltering in eight makeshift UNMISS camps.

Overcrowding has stretched the capabilities of these camps paper-thin. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a medical charity, outlined on February 5th how the influx of 27,000 people into Juba's UN Tomping camp had exceeded the site's carrying capacity of 5,000 and made living conditions there almost impossible.

"Space is the biggest problem we all face in working in Tomping," MSF's emergency coordinator, Forbes Sharp, told Africa in Fact. "It is a working UNMISS camp, not built for housing 27,000 people. From a public health point of view, such crowded conditions are a ticking time bomb.

Communicable diseases spread quickly in this kind of environment, especially with such inadequate sanitation." Yet the number of IDPs continues to grow, and MSF is battling to meet people's needs in its 15 emergency clinics scattered throughout the country.

Despite a ceasefire between rebels and the government signed on January 23rd in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, the situation on the ground remains tense. "The majority [of South Sudanese refugees] are still fearful of returning home," UNHCR spokesperson Pumla Rulashe told Africa in Fact.

"Only a few have trickled back." One of those refusing to return is a 26-year-old-man who prefers to remain anonymous. "It is just a question of security why I am here in Kenya," he said. "My house has been destroyed. If I go back now I fear I will be killed." The young man is a Dinka, and fled his Juba home after government forces allegedly targeted his Nuer neighbourhood for its suspected allegiance to Mr Machar, who is of Nuer ethnicity. He quickly sought shelter in the Tomping compound.

"I left my home as soon as I heard the gunfire on my street and went to the UN compound for safety. The next morning I discovered that my sister, brother and father had been killed. I could not return to my home because all of Juba was unsafe and friends told me that my house had been destroyed," he said.

He left the crowded base after several days because he saw living conditions there rapidly deteriorating. He drove with a friend across the Ugandan border and crossed over into Kenya to stay with family in Nairobi.

"I was very lucky," he said. "I could not have escaped without the help of a friend working as a border security official who drove my car across the border while we hid in the boot. And then in Uganda, the immigration official only gave me a visa because she sympathised with our reasons for fleeing."

The refugee crisis in South Sudan may still deteriorate. A massive funding shortfall has led the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to launch a new crisis response plan in early February, appealing for $1.27 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of 3.2m people.

Meanwhile, the country's UN humanitarian coordinator, Toby Lanzer, has warned that the rainy season--from April to October--could deepen the country's humanitarian crisis.

The seasonal heavy rains, known to make many roads impassable, could create havoc for thousands of people hiding in the bush without shelter or access to food and clean water, Mr Lanzer said. Impending flooding and damage to already scant food production could prompt more vulnerable people throughout South Sudan to flee into neighbouring countries.

At the time of going to print, peace talks between government and rebel forces remained stalled in Addis Ababa. South Sudan's people, in and outside the country, desperately need their leaders to resolve the issues speedily. They need to get back to the task of building lasting institutions in Africa's newest country.

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