You are here: Crystal Wells on South Sudan: caught in the crossfire

When Sarahe’s hometown was consumed by violence, she and her family of six did what anyone in their position would do—they fled. They left behind their home, their belongings, and the life they were humbly building for themselves and set off to make the 200-kilometer journey to the capital, Juba, where they thought they would be safer.

 “We walked for three days with nothing to eat,” Sarahe said, “just to get away.”

Sarahe and her family are from Bor, the capital of oil-producing Jonglei State. When we met Sarahe, she had just arrived at a UN base in Juba known as UN House, or Juba 3. “It was really bad there in Bor,” she said, clearly exhausted. “There was a lot of gunfire and many people were dying.”

Bor, which was the first major area to fall to the opposition after fighting erupted in Juba on 15 December, has suffered some of the fiercest fighting in South Sudan’s nascent conflict. For four weeks, government and opposition forces have fought for control over the city as civilians like Sarahe scattered, moving to UN bases, into the bush, or into neighbouring countries in search of refuge.

The intensity of the fighting in Bor, as well as other areas such as Bentiu in Unity State and Malakal in Upper Nile State, made it largely impossible for humanitarian organisations like Concern Worldwide to reach people caught in the crossfire. Sarahe and her family were able to get out of Bor and make their way to Juba, where they could receive some assistance, but the tragic reality is there are tens of thousands of other families just like them who are yet to receive any assistance because it is too dangerous for the humanitarian community to access them.

When fighting spread to Bentiu, Concern was forced to evacuate our staff from the area. NGO vehicles, including Concern’s, were seized and supplies were looted, a pattern that has happened throughout the country. We heard much of the town was burned and most of its residents had fled, with some 8,000 people seeking protection at the local UN base, as others had in Juba just days earlier.

While we had supplies and staff ready to deploy to Bentiu, ongoing fighting and instability made it impossible. It was not until three weeks later could we get our experts up to Bentiu and begin to deliver clean water and sanitation to those sheltering at the UN base. Now, even with a ceasefire supposedly in place, sporadic clashes have been reported and looting is still an issue, making it difficult for humanitarian organisations to preposition supplies in advance of the rainy season.

Six weeks have passed since fighting broke out in Juba and despite the fact that a ceasefire agreement was signed, people are still living in fear and continue to flee their homes. In just six weeks, some 770,000 were driven from their homes, according to the United Nations. An estimated 646,400 of them are scattered throughout South Sudan, and as of 27 January, not even half of them have received humanitarian assistance because of access constraints.

With the vast majority of South Sudan’s internally displaced living outside of UN bases, humanitarian organisations are faced with the incredible challenge of delivering assistance to a large number of people who have sporadically settled across a wide area. Even in the best of times, South Sudan’s infrastructure would make it difficult to get staff and supplies to them, let alone amidst fighting.

The ceasefire is welcome news, and we hope that it will allow us unimpeded access to people in need. If it does not, more lives will needlessly be lost, not just because of the conflict itself, but because people do not have the basic necessities to survive, like food, clean water, sanitation and healthcare. For Sarahe, the journey to Juba by foot was not just to escape the fighting. It was to ensure that she and her family would get assistance at a time when their futures could not be more uncertain.

“We are just glad to be here,” Sarahe said, “where we feel safe and can get something to eat.”

Please note names have been changed due to security reasons.

Crystal Wells is Communications Officer for Concern Worldwide. More information about Concern Worldwide's emergency response to the crisis in South Sudan can be found at concern.net. You can also find Concern on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Photo: Residents of Tomping, a UN base that houses some 16,000 people, line up to receive water, food, and other emergency items from Concern Worldwide and other humanitarian organisations. They were forced from their homes when violence in Juba quickly spread to more than 20 sites across the country. Photo: Crystal Wells/Concern Worldwide.