Relief workers in war-torn South Sudan say they have been beaten, arrested and on one occasion forced to bury a dead soldier, hampering efforts to deliver aid to a population on the brink of famine.
Government and rebel forces who have been fighting for seven months have targeted World Food Programme staff and Medecins Sans Frontieres facilities, according to WFP spokeswoman Amanda Lawrence-Brown and MSF Mission Head Raphael Gorgeu. The threats limited access to conflict areas and led to the theft of food rations for more than a quarter of a million people, they said.
Thousands of people have died and more than a million have fled their homes since fighting erupted in mid-December between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. In April, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that as many as a million people in the world’s newest nation faced famine unless there was immediate action.
Delivering aid is a “matter of life and death,” the International Organization for Migration’s head of mission in South Sudan, David Derthick, said in an e-mailed response to questions on July 3.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer said he wasn’t aware of recent incidents involving the WFP. Aid agencies are free to move around the country, he said.
“If the fighting stops, if access is allowed by both sides, IOM is in a position to respond,” Derthick said. “Otherwise, hundreds of thousands of people will die. It’s really that simple.”
A WFP team distributing supplies in Wau Shiluk in the country’s Upper Nile state was arrested by government forces and detained for several hours on June 21, Lawrence-Brown, of WFP, said in a July 3 e-mailed response to questions.
On June 28, South Sudanese security forces stopped trucks near the same location and beat the drivers, who were WFP contractors, she said. Staff members in the area were also asked to bury a soldier whose body had been brought from the state capital, Malakal, she said.
“If there’s any problem they should directly approach the authority of the army,” Aguer said in a phone interview from the capital, Juba.
More than 4,600 metric tons of food, enough to feed at least 275,000 people for a month, have been stolen during the conflict, according to WFP estimates. Recent fighting in Upper Nile led to the loss of more than 1,500 tons of food from WFP stores, according to the organization.
On April 24, a barge convoy carrying food and fuel on the Nile River for a UN base in Upper Nile was attacked by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, wounding at least four crew members. Spokesmen for South Sudan’s army and rebels both denied their forces were responsible for the attack.
MSF, one of the longest-serving aid organizations in South Sudan, said at least 58 people have been killed on hospital grounds since the conflict began. Hospitals have been ransacked or burned on at least six occasions.
“The conflict has at times seen horrific levels of violence, including against health care facilities,” Raphael Gorgeu, MSF’s head of mission in the country, said in an e-mailed statement on July 1.
“Patients have been shot in their beds and lifesaving medical facilities have been burned and effectively destroyed. These attacks have far-reaching consequences for hundreds of thousands of people who are cut off from medical services.”~
Four million South Sudanese are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, according to the UN. In addition, at least 235,000 children under the age of five will require treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year, twice as many as last year, according to the UN Children’s Fund and WFP.
So far, humanitarian agencies have only been able to reach about 10 percent of children with the required treatment. Food drops by aircraft are being used because of “challenges” getting supplies to those most affected, the agencies said in a joint statement on July 8.
The country is also facing a cholera outbreak, which has become more difficult to manage during the current rainy season, according to the UN. Between April and July 6, the disease infected an estimated 2,916 people, killing 67.