As fighting continues across South Sudan, the United Nations is reporting that some 1,000 people may have been killed, while aid agencies estimate that in a worst-case scenario, thousands more could be displaced or will require humanitarian assistance.
There are also serious concerns about the safety and health of the 58,000people who have sought refuge at UN bases around the country, as aid organizations work to provide emergency food, water and sanitation facilities to prevent disease outbreaks.
“We are extremely concerned about the escalation in the situation in South Sudan,” the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Country Representative, Iyorlumun Uhaa, told IRIN. “We’re really facing a huge and growing humanitarian crisis.”
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), aid agencies need an estimated US$166 million in emergency funding from now until March 2014 for the needs of those affected by the violence.
The fighting in South Sudan began on 15 December 2013, when clashes erupted between two factions in military barracks in the national capital, Juba. President Salva Kiir blamed the incident on a failed coup attempt by his former deputy, Riek Machar, which Machar denied. However, the former vice president has told several news agencies that he is now in open rebellion against the government.
The violence in Juba has since subsided, but clashes have been reported in seven of the country’s 10 states. Forces loyal to Machar are in control of Unity state. They also held Bor, the capital of neighbouring Jonglei state, but lost control of the town to government forces on 24 December.
The government has also reported continued fighting in oil-rich Upper Nile state. Michael White, the head of mission in South Sudan for the medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said “over the last couple of days there has been sustained fighting” in the area, and they have received 70 people with gunshot wounds at their hospital in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state.
The UN Security Council voted on 24 December to nearly double the number of peacekeepers in the country – from 7,000 to 12,500 – while the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Hilden Johnson, warned that the UN Mission is “overstretched with current protection obligations related to the civilians in our camps and making sure they are safe”.
In areas where the fighting has stopped, aid agencies are scrambling to meet the needs of thousands of people uprooted from their homes and still too afraid to return. This includes Juba, where at least 500 people were killed in four days of fighting, according to the UN, and 25,000 people are still sheltering at two UN camps.
UNICEF’s Uhaa said most of those living in the camps are women and children. “In areas around Juba where we have access, the major issues for children relate to the separation from their families,” he said. “A lot of the children came to the camps [after]being separated from their families.”
According to Uhaa, UN and other agencies are trying to provide emergency supplies of food, water and temporary shelter to as many people as possible. They are also building latrines to discourage open defecation, which heightens the risk of an outbreak of waterborne diseases, like cholera.
Wendy Taeuber, country director of the NGO, International Rescue Committee (IRC), told IRIN that overcrowding in the camps has hampered their efforts to address cases of gender-based violence that might have occurred during the fighting.
“There’s no safe space for women in the camps,” she said. “If you even want to meet with a woman to hear about how she’s feeling in the camp, there’s nowhere… Everyone is surrounded by hundreds of other people and there’s not a safe space to even have a conversation.”
The situation in the country’s more remote areas is unclear, with no way of confirming casualties or displacements.
The Jonglei State Relief and Rehabilitation director, Gabriel Deng Ajak, said the government still has no clear picture of what the needs are in the Bor area, and this is further complicated by reports of fighting on the outskirts of the city. He said as many as 100,000 people may have been displaced, of whom 15,000 are still sheltering at the UN base in the town.
“[A] very huge humanitarian response [will]be required, because all the civilian population in and around Bor have lost their livelihood,” Ajak said. He added that the government is launching an emergency assessment in the coming days to determine how extensive the needs are.
Peacekeepers and aid workers are also in danger. On 20 December, two Indian peacekeepers and a clinical health officer working for the International Medical Corps were killed when local youths overran a UN base in Akobo in Jonglei state.
MSF’s White said it is critical that they “have free access in all the areas where we work”, and “What we’re ensuring is that our teams can continue to work, can continue to provide life-saving medical activities. That will remain our goal.”