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BY MARC SANTORA, 29 JUNE 2015, Business Day (South Africa)
NEARLY half the population of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, is in danger of going hungry. New atrocities are reported almost every day.
And more than 1.5-million people have fled their homes, the vast majority to swampland villages where they hope rising waters during the rainy season will keep them safe from marauding soldiers.
“There is no more country. I don’t know how the fighting stops now,” says John Khamis, who has spent much of his nation’s existence sheltered in a camp on a United Nations (UN) base.
It has been less than two years since a power struggle between its leaders plunged South Sudan into chaos, inflaming old ethnic tension that almost immediately tore this new country apart.
Despite repeated attempts at peace, some of the deadliest fighting of the civil war has erupted in the past few months.
The warring leaders are unflinchingly entrenched in their positions, and the kinds of abuses that shocked the world early in the conflict, including the use of child soldiers and deliberate attacks on civilians, are reoccurring with new ferocity.
“The details of the worsening violence against children are unspeakable,” says the director of Unicef, Anthony Lake.
“Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death. Girls as young as eight have been gang raped and murdered. Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats. Others have been thrown into burning buildings.”
THE spokesman for the military, the South Sudanese Liberation Army, acknowledges that the conflict is pointless.
“This is a senseless war,” says Col Phillip Guarang.
Many observers argue that the humanitarian crisis seems to get worse by the day. The country’s economy is in free fall, and the cost of food, petrol and other essentials has skyrocketed.
By April, 3.8-million people did not have enough food. Within a month, that number had grown by nearly a million.
“A staggering number of people are going hungry,” says Joyce Luma, the director of the World Food Programme in South Sudan.
So many people are seeking refuge that in one village north of the city of Malakal, Wau Shilluk, the population exploded to more than 39,000 from 3,000. For more than a month, no aid could get there because of the fighting, and children described going as many as five days without a meal.
George Fominyen, the spokesman for the World Food Programme, says it is a race against time to deliver food and other supplies before the heavy rains.
“When you look at the map and the stretches of land these people crossed to survive, you have to ask how in the world did they make it there alive,” he says.
IN MALAKAL, more than 7,000 people have arrived in the past two months, swelling the compound’s population to more than 30,000.
With families piled on families, much of the UN camp has become an open sewer.
The fighting has kept supplies from arriving from the capital, and there are shortages of just about everything.
UN officials say they face an impossible choice: open their doors to the desperate or let people die.
This is a far cry from what international officials envisioned when the decades of war between northern and southern Sudan ended and a peace treaty was reached in 2005, paving the way for independence from Sudan.
In 2011, when South Sudan voted to separate from Sudan, the leaders of the new nation’s two largest ethnic groups — the Dinka and the Nuer — joined in forming a government.
In December 2013, President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice-president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup.
The two had a history of hostility dating back decades, and their personal political struggle quickly swallowed the country, setting off a new round of violence that spread from the capital and has been most intense in two regions where there are oilfields.
Villages were torched; hundreds of thousands fled to the bush; and untold numbers of civilians were killed. In places where the fighting is fiercest, no one is even trying to count the dead.
The opposing forces now sit on opposite sides of the Nile, occasionally lobbing mortar shells at each other, the bombs flying over the civilians huddled in camps for safety.
Malakal has changed hands at least eight times. But as fighting eased in recent months, some people had started to go back to the city, opening a market and hoping to rebuild lost lives.
LUAL Ukuach, 43, says his brother and his children were all in Malakal when the latest round of clashes erupted. “The troops, they came and they asked if you were Shilluk,” he says.
The wrong answer resulted in a bullet.
“I lost five members of my family, including my blood brother.”
In the latest round of fighting, government forces began an offensive in Unity State, with reports suggesting that they had reached Machar’s hometown, Leer.
“Eyewitness accounts reported targeted rape and killing of civilians, including children,” according to a statement by the UN. It has accused all sides of abuses, adding combatants were preventing human rights workers from documenting what has taken place in the past two months. Guarang said the government was not keeping anyone out of places where there had been fighting, and welcomed an investigation. Representatives for Machar could not be reached for comment, but his supporters argue that the fault lay with the government.
Guarang blames criminals for violations of human rights attributed to the government but says he, too, supports accountability — just not yet. “You cannot account when the war is on,” he says. “How do you get the suspects from both sides when the war is flaming?”
Still, he concedes that there is a major problem with “indiscipline” fuelled by alcohol.
WHILE exact figures are impossible to determine, international officials and human rights activists say tens of thousands of people have been killed since 2013.
“For more than 17 months, women, men and children have been senselessly suffering through an entirely man-made catastrophe,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said last month.
“And now, over the past few weeks, the opposing parties have actually managed to make a terrible situation much, much worse.”The government has not reacted well to criticism. After the UN chief relief co-ordinator Toby Lanzer offered a scathing critique of the government, he was expelled from the country this month.