This video taken by a UN Peacekeeper in South Sudan has been making the rounds the past few days. It shows a handful of Blue Helmets coming across a line of armed militia men militia as far as the eye can see. The peacekeeper says they are marching home after battle.

For the past several weeks tribal violence has flared up in  the Jonglei state of South Sudan between ethnic Murle and Lou Nuer peoples. On top of this communal violence is a fairly heavy insurgency by a former South Sudan military leader; the counter-insurgency waged by South Sudan is becoming increasingly brutal.

The tribe-on-tribe violence in Jonglei is occurring at the same time as South Sudan’s military is fighting an insurgent campaign led by the rebel leader David Yau Yau, a member of the Murle ethnic group. South Sudan alleges that Yau Yau is backed by Sudan.

Human Rights Watch said South Sudan has committed a series of killings against civilians while carrying out its campaign against Yau Yau, abuses that have forced civilians to flee, making them more vulnerable to attacks carried out by the Lou Nuer.

Aguer said that the army has been fighting only insurgents. “We do not fight civilians,” he said. “If there are people who are killed in crossfire then we need to examine what and see happened and who was conducting operations in those areas.”

Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, said one of its emergency teams is attempting to reach the tens of thousands of people “hiding in unsafe, malaria-infested swamps” who have no access to safe drinking water, food or medical care.

The consequence of this multi-layered fighting in a remote part of the world is a massive humanitarian emergency. Over 100,000 people have been displaced. Earlier this week, USAID Chief Raj Shah called for unfettered humanitarian access to affected populations. This was an important call because the USA has considerable sway in South Sudan.

This large-scale displacement comes at the onset of the rainy season–a time when these semi-nomadic communities traditionally return to town centers, extensive flooding in rural areas greatly increases the potential for disease, and civilians are at increased risk of attack in the context of communal and other violence.

The military has a responsibility to protect civilians, but we have heard disturbing reports of Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers harming and intimidating civilians in Jonglei State. The Government of the Republic of South Sudan must ensure that its military forces adhere to humanitarian principles and protect all civilians regardless of their background or ethnicity.

Town centers are highly militarized, preventing civilians from freely and safely returning. To help alleviate this rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis, we are calling for the immediate relocation of SPLA garrisons out of town centers and the removal of commanding officers with records of civilian endangerment from service in Pibor County. The people of Jonglei must be able to return to key population centers to receive urgent life-saving assistance.

Town centers are highly militarized, preventing civilians from freely and safely returning. To help alleviate this rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis, we are calling for the immediate relocation of SPLA garrisons out of town centers and the removal of commanding officers with records of civilian endangerment from service in Pibor County. The people of Jonglei must be able to return to key population centers to receive urgent life-saving assistance.

The U.S. remains committed to doing all we can to reach vulnerable populations wherever they are in South Sudan. We welcome the Government of the Republic of South Sudan’s efforts to help aid agencies begin to reach as many as 25,000 people in remote, demilitarized bush areas for the first time this week. But all restrictions on humanitarian assistance for those in desperate need must stop. We join our humanitarian partners in calling on all parties to the conflict to ensure unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Jonglei, and we are prepared to increase our support if and when additional access is granted.

That call seemed to work because late yesterday, WFP launched a emergency operation — by helicopter — to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance to the displaced.

This is very clearly an emergent situation and one to which we all ought to pay close attention.

 

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