South Sudan: Two MSF Aid Workers Killed as Fighting Continues in Unity State

Two South Sudanese aid workers from the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were killed last week in South Sudan's Unity State, where conflict continues to take a heavy toll on the civilian population.

Gawar Top Puoy, a logistician who had worked for MSF since 2009, was killed during an attack on the village of Wulu. James Gatluak Gatpieny, a community health worker who had worked for MSF since 2011, was killed during a separate attack on the village of Payak. Both villages are in the vicinity of Leer town, where a longtime MSF hospital is no longer functioning due to insecurity.

"We're deeply shocked and saddened by the killings of our colleagues," said Tara Newell, MSF emergency manager. "It’s an indication of current level of violence that people living in Unity state today are exposed to."

MSF has received confirmation of their deaths but does not yet know the precise circumstances under which these killings took place.

MSF was forced to evacuate its international staff from Leer in May as fighting intensified in Unity State. South Sudanese staff members, like Gawar Top Puoy and James Gatluak Gatpieny, sought shelter with their families in the surrounding swamps to escape the ongoing fighting. Despite being displaced themselves, many of these staff members continue to support MSF activities, carrying backpacks with medicines to treat civilians and informing people about MSF mobile clinics in the area.

Several staff members who worked in Leer are unaccounted for, and in late July, another MSF aid worker was wounded by a gunshot to the face during an attack on the village of Dablual.

The MSF hospital in Leer was the only secondary health care facility in an area with about 200,000 people. The ongoing suspension of health services by other actors in the southern part of Unity State as a result of the fighting means that many people have no access to health care at all.

A mobile MSF team consisting of three international staff members has been present in the area for the past month, trying to provide some basic health care services amid ongoing fighting. Running a small clinic in Leer town, or traveling by foot, raft or canoe, they have managed to reach displaced people sheltering in the surrounding swamps, treating respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, malaria and some cases of sexual violence. War wounded patients are seen nearly every day.

In the last month alone, the MSF team—with only one medic—has stabilized more than 50 people with gunshot wounds. One of these patients was a three-year-old girl shot in the leg and another was a heavily pregnant woman shot in both legs and her right hand during a different attack. Her unborn child did not survive the ordeal.

"The situation is desperate," Newell said. "Ongoing attacks, killings and sexual violence against civilians by any armed actor in Unity state must stop. People displaced from their homes and villages should be able to move safely to seek assistance, wherever it is being provided.”