South Sudan: Imminent Attack Forces MSF Evacuation from Hospital

Nick Owen/MSF

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN/NEW YORK—An imminent attack on the South Sudanese town of Leer has forced the suspension of medical activities at the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital there, which has evacuated its international staff, the international medical humanitarian organization said today.

Heavy fighting in Unity State in northern South Sudan is threatening civilians and medical facilities. The MSF hospital in Leer was previously attacked during fighting in the area early last year. 

"We must sound the alarm on the grim situation in southern Unity state," said Pete Buth, deputy operations director for MSF. "We cannot stand by and watch as civilians and medical facilities are attacked again. All warring parties must take immediate steps to ensure that civilians, as well as humanitarian staff and their facilities and vehicles, are not targeted in the fighting."

The MSF hospital in Leer had served the surrounding population for 27 years when it was burned and looted as the town came under attack in late January and early February 2014. National staff were forced to flee into the bush, carrying critically ill patients on their backs, after MSF vehicles were stolen by fighters.

"We hope that we do not see a repeat of what happened in January 2014 when fighting forced thousands of people—including our local staff who took along dozens of critically ill patients—to hide in the swamps with their families," said Paul Critchley, MSF head of mission. "When our staff were able to return some months later, we found the hospital burned, the operating theater destroyed, and our supplies looted."

The attack deprived people of primary health care and interrupted longstanding treatment programs for HIV, tuberculosis, and Kala Azar (visceral leishmaniasis). Patients and staff living in the open in Leer’s surrounding swamps were forced to subsist on roots and wild fruit, and to drink dirty swamp water, making them more vulnerable to malaria and diarrheal diseases.

The hospital finally resumed activities later in 2014. Last month, MSF medical staff admitted 264 inpatients in the hospital and managed 6,473 outpatients and 1,116 malnourished children from Leer and the surrounding area.

"Today, we withdraw again with a heavy heart, because we know how civilians will suffer when they are cut off from critical, lifesaving medical care," said Critchley.  "We call on all armed groups to show unconditional respect for our patients, medical facilities and staff."

Mothers and their children sit in the waiting area of the ambulatory therapeutic feeding centre (ATFC) in MSF’s hospital in Leer, Unity state, South Sudan. The nutritional situation in Leer is shocking. When the conflict tore through the town in late January/early February, stocks of food were looted and people’s houses razed to the ground. The MSF hospital in Leer was, in effect, destroyed, and the MSF teams were forced to evacuate. As people fled into the bush, they survived on little but lily roots and whatever else could be scavenged. Since then, the ongoing fighting has made it difficult for people to plant crops. The MSF hospital re-opened at the beginning of May 2014 and as of Friday, 13th June 2014, 1,713 children were enrolled in MSF’s ATFC in Leer, with 15 severely malnourished children admitted into the intensive therapeutic feeding centre (ITFC).
Nick Owen/MSF