South Sudan: Violence And Displacement Precede Birth Of A New Nation

South Sudan 2011 © Gaël Turine / VU

People displaced from the Abyei region struggle to build sanctuaries and protect themselves from the harsh sun near Juong Pajok.

As South Sudan prepares to mark its official independence this Saturday, July 9, and become the world's newest nation, an estimated 260,000 newly displaced people require emergency assistance. This includes 100,000 people who fled the mid-May bombings and fighting between northern and southern Sudanese forces in the transitional border area of Abyei.

The majority of those fleeing the Abyei violence found temporary sanctuary not far away, in the hopes that they could return when the violence abated. However, those more fearful of further violence travelled up to 10 days in search of a place in which they could feel safe. In early June, 5,000 people sought refuge in the villages of Juong Pajok and Mayem Pajok, in the Akon North area of Warrap State. By the start of July, the number had risen to 6,300.

“People arrived in a terrible state, exhausted and traumatized,” says Carole Coeur, a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency coordinator. “Many saw family members killed during heavy bombings. As fighting continued, they had to bury dead children or parents before fleeing themselves. Others lost family members during ambushes by soldiers as they escaped southwards, and still don’t know if they are dead or alive.”

South Sudan is a chronically food insecure area where less then 25 percent of people have access to even basic health care. The annual hunger gap—a time of year between harvests when food is particularly scarce—has started, and the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by violence, along with an additional 300,000 southerners who returned from homes outside the region in anticipation of independence, place a serious burden on critically limited resources such as food, water and shelter.

“Those already living in the villages welcomed the displaced people and helped them out as best they could,” noted Coeur. “However, there’s just not enough food, shelter, or clean water for the host communities and all those fleeing violence. It’s 40 degrees heat in the day [approximately 104° F], malaria is endemic, and the rainy season is beginning. They may have escaped bombs, but it’s still an emergency for these people.”

In mid-June, an MSF emergency team set up a new project to assist the displaced near Juong Pajok and Mayen Pajok villages. MSF has already vaccinated 3,043 children against measles and distributed 224 relief kits that include basic items such as mosquito nets, plastic sheeting, ropes, cooking utensils, soap, and buckets. In addition, MSF distributed 90,100 high-energy BP5 biscuits and plans to deliver over 2,000 tents to families to provide more permanent shelter from the harsh elements.

MSF also started a twice-weekly mobile clinic to Juong Pajok to provide basic primary health care to people and is about to start another for Mayen Pajok. An ambulatory therapeutic feeding program for severely malnourished children is a key component of this emergency medical aid.

Fighting has quieted in Abyei, but violence continues in neighboring South Kordofan, where up to 70,000 people were displaced by recent clashes, according to estimates. When South Sudan becomes an independent state, emergencies due to violence and insecurity will remain a significant threat to the lives and livelihoods of its people. In addition to tension between North and South Sudan, the risk of displacement for the South Sudanese is exacerbated by the threat of further clashes between new militias and the southern army, the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, intercommunal violence, and cattle raids.

MSF's projects in Sudan and South Sudan.

MSF has been working in Sudan since 1978. In South Sudan in 2011, MSF employs more than 2,000 national staff working alongside almost 200 international staff in 13 projects covering 8 states. From January through April, MSF hospitalized 6,422 patients, performed 140,519 outpatient consultations and 29,278 antenatal care consultations for women, delivered 2,681 babies, treated 10,392 malaria cases, admitted 6,109 malnourished children, performed 1,828 major surgeries, including C-sections, and treated 1,079 kala azar patients and 2,347 TB cases.