South Sudan crisis: famine and genocide threaten to engulf nation
It is happening again. Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, 30 years after the famine in Ethiopia, Africa‘s twin scourges are back. This time it is a single country facing a double disaster. South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, not yet three years old, is on the brink of catastrophe.
Here in Melut, on the banks of the Nile, close to the oilfields and the border with Sudan, the signs of impending disaster are impossible to miss. This week the world’s richest nations will have one last chance to make good their promises of help.
Nearly 20,000 people have fled to the refugee camps in Melut since fighting between rival government factions broke out last December. In total, more than a million people have fled from their homes and, with the rainy season starting, more than a third of the population – 3.7 million people – are already facing emergency and crisis levels of hunger.
“There is no food here,” a man tells me as we sit in the dust beneath an acacia tree in one of Melut’s makeshift camps. “No food. We eat leaves from the trees and the women go out to collect firewood. But when the rain comes, it will be still worse. We will starve – and then we will die.”
Relief agencies are fighting a desperate battle to alert the outside world to the scale of the impending disaster. Last week Oxfam warned that the crisis has reached a “now or never moment” to avoid catastrophic levels of hunger and suffering. Chief executive Mark Goldring said: “The crisis is at a tipping point. We either act now or millions will pay the price. We need a massive and rapid global surge in aid … We cannot afford to wait, and we cannot afford to fail.”
In Melut the rains have just started. Two of the town’s camps are on the banks of the Nile and few of the flimsy straw huts have plastic sheeting for their roofs. Soon the dust will turn to mud. Disease will spread. The old and the young, already weak from hunger, will start to die. “Please tell the world,” says one of the camp’s leaders. “We need food, shelter and mosquito nets. We cannot survive like this.”
Last week, in an ominous development, the South Sudanese government officially declared a cholera outbreak in the capital, Juba. In a statement last Thursday, it said that 18 suspected cases and one death have already been reported in the city. The fear is that soon the outbreak will spread among the 1.3 million people who have been displaced by the past five months of violence.
The world cannot say it didn’t know about this crisis. Last month the US’s top aid official, Rajiv Shah, warned: “South Sudan is on the brink of famine.” The EU said the world was witnessing a humanitarian disaster of appalling proportions, and the UN’s humanitarian aid coordinator, Toby Lanzer, said that without immediate action the South Sudan crisis will be more serious than anything seen in Africa since the Ethiopian famine of 30 years ago.
On Tuesday the world’s major donors will meet in Oslo to decide on a response to the crisis. The UN says current pledges amount to less than half of what is needed: it wants another $1.26bn (£750m) to pay for urgent assistance until the end of this year. Without it, four million people will be left at risk of avoidable diseases, hunger or death. Up to 50,000 children could die from malnutrition. Cholera could spread and tens of thousands of people could die from other diseases such as measles, pneumonia and malaria. If no seeds are planted during the rainy season, famine will follow within months.
I met Tyler Evans, a doctor from New York who is working with the relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières, in his makeshift clinic beneath a piece of plastic sheeting held up on wooden poles. We were in the UN compound in Melut, where nearly 1,000 people have sought refuge behind razor wire after being chased from their homes by armed gangs.
The biggest health issue Evans faces on his visits twice a week to the over-crowded and squalid camp is lack of hygiene.
“What’s the use of me telling a woman she must wash her hands before she feeds her children if she has no soap and no access to clean water?” he asks. “We’re already seeing malnourishment among children – up to 10% not far from here – and when the rains come, so will malaria.”
The people in this camp are terrified and traumatised. They shelter beneath the protective guns of UN guards, knowing full well that last month in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state to the south of here, 200 armed men in civilian clothing stormed a UN base where more than 5,000 civilians had taken refuge. More than 50 people were reported to have been killed.
They, like the people in the UN compound in Melut, were Nuer, members of South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group to which the former vice-president, now turned rebel leader, Riek Machar, belongs. What began as a personal and political struggle between him and President Salva Kiir, who is a Dinka, the country’s biggest ethnic group, has now turned into communal bloodletting of Rwanda-like brutality.
International diplomats do not use the word genocide lightly – but two weeks ago the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said that if South Sudan’s violence continued along ethnic lines it “could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide”.
What that implies is that this is not the kind of conflict that can be stopped in its tracks by a ceasefire agreement – and early signs are that the agreement in Addis Ababa last weekend is shaky at best.
Unlike in Rwanda, the ethnic massacring is mutual in South Sudan. In one of the worst single incidents, at least 400 Dinka were slaughtered last month by Nuer attackers in Bentiu. Some were killed as they sought shelter in mosques and churches – and, in another terrible echo of Rwanda, local FM radio stations were used to incite local people to join the carnage. Nuer kill Dinka; Dinka kill Nuer.
“People came from a neighbouring village and told us you cannot live around here any more,” says a Nuer man in the Melut UN compound. “They said that if we stayed we would be killed. A lot of people in my village were killed. God knows what will be the future for my children. Here, we are starving.”
None of the men in the camp dares venture beyond the barbed wire fence. So it is the women who go out foraging for firewood. They know the risks. “Every day we walk for five hours looking for wood,” says one woman. “It is very dangerous for us. Yesterday one woman did not return. Another one returned and cried for the whole day. Terrible things happen.”
She refuses to say more. My translator explains that many women are raped when they leave the compound.
A UN human rights report published 10 days ago makes grim reading: “All parties to the conflict have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women of different ethnic groups … There are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have been committed by both parties.”
After the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, leaders of the world’s richest nations said it must never happen again. They said the same after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But in South Sudan, it is happening. Again. Guardian