On paper, the civil war in South Sudan ended in August when President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, an ethnic Dinka, and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, signed a peace accord. Both sides of the conflict were under increasing international pressure to end the two year conflict; the United Nations threatened “immediate action” if President Kiir did not endorse the peace deal, and President Obama and regional leaders threatened to expand international sanctions and impose an arms embargo. But the peace deal has failed to stop the fighting, rape and starvation bordering on famine.
Both a report by a panel of experts presented to the United Nations Security Council and a report by a commission formed by the African Union found that all parties to the conflict have been targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. Attempting to escape the violence, many have sought refuge in a vast marshland in the Unity State, known as the Sudd, but they are still not safe. The Sudd swells to the size of France during the rainy season and is riddled with crocodiles, snakes, mosquitoes, and tsetse and razor flies. But even though people are aware of the danger, staying home is not an option.
Tens of thousands of the 2.2 million displaced have fled to the relative safety of the Sudd. Geng Keah Deng joined about 80,000 other people on an island in the swamp. He has five daughters, but fled to the Sudd alone. After being shot, he watched a fighter carry away one daughter, and he does not know what happened to the other four. On Kok island about 90 families, up to 900 people, are packed onto land smaller than a football field. Because the island lacks proper sewage facilities, the people have to relieve themselves and dispose waste either near their tents or in the water where they also wash and collect drinking water. The island smells of urine, feces and rotting fish. The dead are buried alongside the tents.
Food security remains an issue in the Sudd and the rest of South Sudan. Some people eat water lilies, fish and hippo meat to survive. Others only have grass and leaves. Three UN agencies, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Program, warned last month that “extreme hunger is pushing people to the brink of catastrophe in parts of South Sudan” with 3.9 million people nationwide facing severe food insecurity.” In Unity State, “at least 30,000 people are living in extreme conditions and facing starvation and death.” Aid workers fear “pockets” of possible famine caused by war, not by climatic conditions. According to a report published in October, the country could face famine in a matter of weeks if immediate action is not taken.
With the peace deal in place, aid groups are negotiating with the warring sides to allow them to enter and reestablish access to communities cut off by violence. UNICEF and the World Food Programme were allowed to initiate a relief and rescue operation, but no one knows how long the lulls in fighting will last, so aid workers can only stay a few days. Many walk for hours or days to wait in lines with hundreds of people for food, medicine and other goods. People emerge from places of relative safety in desperate need of assistance, but they are still afraid.
Joyce Luma, the World Food Programme’s South Sudan director, said there were concerns that civilians might be attacked after the aid workers leave. In July, government soldiers in Unity were accused of attacking and stealing relief supplies from a village after an aid delivery. Luma said they gave aid recipients half-full sacks of grain so that they would not have to abandon their food if they had to flee from an attack again.