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South Sudan surpassed Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen as the most dangerous country where we delivered aid in 2017. This year could turn out just as deadly.
Of the 158 major violent incidents against aid operations across the globe last year, almost one in three occurred in South Sudan. Record numbers of aid workers were killed by gunfire. One hundred aid workers have been killed since the conflict broke out in 2013, with South Sudanese staff at the highest risk.
2017 also witnessed a rise in detention of aid workers in South Sudan. Among them were the 10 humanitarians detained from their convoy in the southern town of Yei in April. They were held captive by militants for seven days before being released. Prior to 2016, detentions were rare in the country, more a hallmark of neighbouring Sudan. Aid workers are protected by international law and must not be used as pawns in conflict. It paralyses our lifesaving work.
I visited South Sudan earlier this year and saw first-hand how near-impossible it can be to deliver aid. My organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is part of a rapid response mechanism, sending teams into hard-to-reach places to provide food and other lifesaving items. Just before I arrived our staff were forced to suspend an emergency food distribution because of fighting in former Unity State.
Too many of our colleagues have been struck. The same month, armed men attacked and shot at an International Committee of the Red Cross field base in the northern town of Leer. Staff were evacuated to the capital Juba, and thousands of hunger-hit civilians were left without farming seeds and tools.
In South Sudan, starvation is just a heartbeat away. Food distributions are a vital lifeline for tens of thousands. Famine struck parts of the country in 2017, but was reversed largely by aid organisations delivering food and other relief. This year, famine looms once again. More civilians are today without food in more places than ever before in the country's history. A lack of access to communities and attacks on aid workers will push already food deprived families to the brink of starvation.
When fighting occurs, people often flee into the bush for safety. To save lives, aid agencies must move quickly and safely across the country. Denial or delays to access by armed groups or other authorities happen all too often. Almost one in ten of all access incidents in 2017 related to restriction of humanitarian movement.
Establishing peace and reconciliation within war-torn South Sudan is the best way to ensure aid delivery and aid worker safety. This month's peace deal signed in Khartoum is a welcome development, but the deal needs to be implemented at all levels for it to have any meaningful impact.
The government must also hold those responsible accountable for attacks, killings and abductions against humanitarians. It must set example to military and administrative personnel, and to armed groups, that it will not allow relief workers to be targeted.
Humanitarians go to work every day aware of the risks they face. But unlike combatants, they are in warzones to deliver lifesaving assistance. It's time that all sides respected the rules of war in South Sudan, otherwise 2018 will shape up to be as bad as 2017.
Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. Follow him at @NRC_Egeland.