And the indescribable suffering of its people
Representatives of the international pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) travelled to South Sudan recently, where they were told first-hand about the terrible situation of the refugees and internally displaced peoples uprooted by the current conflict in the states of Upper Nile and Unity in this new Republic. On July 9, it will be four years since independence was gained by this, the youngest country in the world, which has subsequently been torn apart by internal rivalries and tribal struggles, ever since the eruption of a “political crisis” in December 2013 – as the South Sudanese describe the bitter conflict in the north of the country.
850,000 refugees from South Sudan
This fierce armed conflict between the forces loyal to the government of President Salva Kiir and the rebels allied to the former vice president Riek Machar has forced more than 2 million people from their homes, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the information published on July 3 by this organization, there are currently over 850,000 refugees from South Sudan now living in Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Kenya, while there are around 1 ½ million people internally displaced within South Sudan.
“The suffering of the people in Upper Nile is inexplicable. They are left on their own,” local sources told ACN. “We have lived through situations of war in the past, but the brutality and violence of the struggles this time is indescribable. Especially the attacks on women and children, and also on people who are entirely external to the conflict between the two gangs. Up until a few weeks ago the women from the refugee camps in Upper Nile State used to leave the refugee camp to collect grass and berries to eat, since there is immense hunger there. But there were a number of cases of rape and physical violence, and some of the women never returned to the camp. It is like being in a prison inside your own country, and yet at the same time it is the only place people feel safe”, ACN staff were told by one of the nearly 20,000 registered civilians seeking protection in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) “Protection of Civilians” site in Malakal.
“Nevertheless, even inside the camp we have to be careful. There has been deliberately targeted shooting from the trees, into the interior of the camp, above all into the part of the camp where the refugees of the Shilluk tribe are concentrated”, the refugees report. This information was also confirmed by the UNMISS. The people of the Shilluk tribe, the third largest numerically within the country, live on both banks of the River Nile, close to the town of Malakal, and have been among the most seriously affected, collaterally, by the conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes.
When the Republic of South Sudan was created in 2011, a balance between the largest and most powerful ethnic groups in the country was aimed for: by naming Salva Kiir, a dinka, president and Riek Machar, a nuer, vice-president. What started as a political power crisis between the two in December 2013, has quickly become a deeper conflict of vast antagonism between the two ethnic groups. A number of local sources – corroborated by the humanitarian organisations – have accused both parties in the conflict of acts of “genocide” and extreme tribalism. There have been numerous cases of violence, rape, pillaging, vandalism and even murder of civilians unconnected either with the rebels or with the army, simply on account of their belonging to a particular ethnic group. At the same time there is serious but deliberate and underhand failure to cooperate and even obstruction by both sides, effectively preventing access to the aid and food supplies for the refugees and displaced peoples in the UNHCR refugee camps.
Basic pleas of refugees
This drastic situation has meant that the number of South Sudanese seeking refuge in the northern neighbour Sudan has been increasing every day. According to information from UNHCR, just since May 2015 almost 30,000 people have crossed the border from the South to take refuge in the camps that have opened in the North. Altogether there are estimated to be more than 90,000 refugees here, above all in the refugee camps of White Nile State – South from Kosti – but also in Kordofan, Blue Nile State and around Khartoum. Although their situation is undoubtedly better than that of the refugees in their own country, their living conditions are far from ideal.
One of the basic pleas of the refugees who have ended up in these camps in the northern state of Sudan is for an end to the ban on UN agencies gaining access to the camps, since at present only Sudanese government organisations are permitted to enter them. ACNUR is able to provide basic services only via the Sudanese government channels, since they are not permitted to enter directly into the refugee camps. Moreover, the security situation in these camps leaves much to be desired, since there is no proper control on those entering and leaving the camps in order to protect the safety of the refugees. There have been local reports of attacks, robberies and abuse of the women refugees by persons from outside the camps. In such cases the refugees have no one to turn to for help.
Another major problem is the refusal by Sudan to officially grant refugee status to the people coming from South Sudan. The government of Sudan, from which South Sudan broke away to become independent four years ago, continues to treat them as “brothers and sisters” who are returning to their own country. There is no process of registration and no formal process whereby these people can acquire refugee status. Yet despite the official claims by the Sudanese government that it is treating refugees from the South as citizens of Sudan, “the treatment of the citizens from this newly independent country is by no means equal, even when they possess an identity card. For example many of the women work as domestic servants in Khartoum, in order to survive. There are many complaints of ill-treatment and abuse.
The same is true of the men who seek work, and who are paid low wages for long hours of work, since they do not possess any legal papers,” ACN representatives were told by sources close to those affected. The UN conventions on the status of refugees grant formal recognition to their refugee status and would thereby allow these refugees to obtain work permits and enjoy legal protection.