People from South Sudan are being driven to starvation as a result of ongoing conflict – according to a Catholic charity which carried out a fact-finding visit to Africa’s youngest country.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which supports persecuted and other suffering Christians, describes in a report on South Sudan how displaced people in the north-east – have been so hungry they have had to scavenge for grass and berries.
One of the nearly 20,000 registered civilians seeking protection in the United Nations Mission in Unity and Upper Nile states told the charity they felt they had been “left on their own”.
“We have lived through situations of war in the past, but the brutality and violence of the struggles this time are indescribable.”
Many others have fled north into Sudan where again there are problems of lack of food and other basic aid.
The ACN report, whose release coincides with the fourth anniversary of South Sudan’s secession from Sudan, highlights the country’s ongoing problems since tribal conflict escalated into full-scale war in December 2013.
Projects and communications staff from ACN received first-hand accounts of the terrible situation for refugees by local people affected by the conflict.
Sources close to the displaced people told ACN of the “inexplicable” suffering of refugees in the north of the country in the Malakal and Bentiu areas and of the “attacks on women and children, and also people who are entirely external to the conflict between the two armies”.
ACN heard how South Sudanese made homeless by the conflict were being forced into displacement camps. One such camp was described as “a prison in your own country and yet it is the only place people feel safe.”
Yet the increased cases of violence surrounding the camps have left refugees feeling trapped and isolated.
Those in the camps have reported incidents of “deliberately targeted shooting from the trees, into the interior of the camp” aimed at the refugees of the Shilluk tribe.
Alongside this information, which is verified by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), are reports that the Shilluk tribe, the third largest numerically within the country, has been particularly affected by the war between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the conflict between those loyal to South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebels backing former vice-president Riek Machar have forced more than two million people from their homes in the two years since it began.
After South Sudan was created in 2011, the power struggle between President Kiir, who is from the Dinka tribe, and Machar, a Nuer, escalated into a wider struggle between the two different ethnic groups.
The conflict has prompted a massive surge in South Sudanese seeking refuge in neighbouring Sudan with both Dinka and Nuers accused of refusing to cooperate with humanitarian agencies and obstructing efforts to provide refugees with desperately needed food and other aid.
Like their neighbours in South Sudan, about 90,000 refugees in camps across Sudan do not have direct access to basic aid as UN agencies are banned from entering and all aid services must go through the Sudanese government channels to reach refugees.
ACN also learned that the Sudanese government refuses to officially grant people coming from South Sudan refugee status. Instead they are treated as “brothers and sisters” returning home.
Without the legal protection granted by a refugee status, people fleeing from South Sudan are at risk of abuse.
Sources close to those affected told ACN: “The treatment of the citizens from this newly independent country is by no means equal, even when they possess an identity card.”
Men and women are often under-paid for working long hours and there “are many complaints of ill-treatment and abuse.”
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