Refugee Crisis Brewing In South Sudan

(Credit: Getty Images)

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN — It was early evening in South Sudan, and my colleagues and I had made our way to the compound of a Member of Parliament in the country’s troubled Jonglei state. We were there to meet with several people who had sought refuge from violence in the town of Pibor. People like Mary, who had arrived with five members of her family in tow. The stories that Mary told us were disturbing. She spoke of government forces shooting civilians, burning houses, and looting homes and the local market.

Sadly, Mary’s story echoed other reports that have been coming out of Pibor over the last days and weeks. And they all speak to the growing humanitarian crisis in this war-torn part of the world.

For several weeks, residents of Pibor have been terrorized by the government forces known as the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army). We’ve heard reports of shops and homes being looted, civilians being killed, and dwellings being burned (sometimes with people still inside of them). Thousands of people sought shelter in the bush, making forays into town to get whatever food was still available in the local market.

The breaking point for many came a couple of weeks ago, when a woman was killed along with her teenage daughter and infant child, while a toddler was left barely alive after being stabbed multiple times. After this, the idea of even short trips into Pibor became untenable for some. We heard of two separate incidents of people who had stepped on landmines but chose to stay in the bush rather than seek medical help for fear of being attacked.

Compounding the problem has been the activities of a local rebel leader named David Yau Yau, who launched an uprising in Jonglei after failing to win a local election in 2010. He recently captured the town of Boma, not far from Pibor. As he threatened to march on Pibor, the last of the civilians fled the town, along with the few remaining humanitarian agencies. The SPLA took advantage of the departures by looting those agencies’ compounds.

Now there are thousands of people hiding in the bush, with no food, shelter, or access to medical services. And it is May, which means the beginning of the rainy season. In a few weeks, their pathetic “refuge” will be underwater. With Pibor and the rest of the county basically cut-off for the next eight months, aid workers fear that a humanitarian catastrophe is about to unfold. Although the situation in Pibor is extreme, it is not isolated. There are reports of SPLA abuses throughout Jonglei state. Time and again, humanitarian actors working in the state have told us that the biggest threat to civilians is the SPLA. There is a U.N. peacekeeping mission operating in the state with a mandate to protect civilians. But after one of its helicopters was shot down last December, the mission has been forced to rely on the SPLA to grant it access to many areas — permission that is often denied.

The SPLA is also blocking humanitarian workers’ access to entire sections of Pibor County, leaving a population of almost 140,000 with no services.

It needs to be made clear to the government of South Sudan that this cannot continue. Not only is the government not living up to its obligations to protect its own citizens, but its forces are actively preventing others from making any attempt to do so. Most people in Pibor County have been displaced multiple times because of the activities of the SPLA. Nothing is being done to stop this.

The international community is not blameless either. Donor nations need to take responsibility and push for humanitarian access in Jonglei state. The United States is the biggest bilateral donor to security sector reform in South Sudan. It should use the influence that comes with this to demand a crackdown on SPLA abuses and a reinforced chain-of-command that would help end this culture of impunity.

For the people of Pibor, time is running out.

Dara McLeod is the Director of Communications for Refugees International, a non-profit organization that seeks to end displacement and statelessness crises worldwide and accepts no government or UN funding.