South Sudan: Humanitarian challenges after secession

20 August, 2011
South Sudan: Humanitarian challenges after secession

South Sudan’s historic declaration of independence passed with notable calm across the country on 9 July. However, the new born republic faces considerable humanitarian challenges as it looks to the future, including continued violence along its new and restive northern border, high levels of displacement and disease, and acute gaps in basic service delivery.

On the eve of independence, some 30 separate emergency operations were underway in the country. The mass displacement of civilians from the disputed territory of Abyei in May triggered one of the single largest operation underway, targeting some 110,000 people. In coming weeks, OCHA will be focusing on some of the most pressing humanitarian challenges facing the people of South Sudan in this multi-part series. 

Humanitarian assistance for displaced from Abyei continues, with returns yet to occur

Abyei has long been a major flashpoint in tensions between Sudan and South Sudan. A referendum to decide the fate of the area was agreed under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended 22 years of civil war in 2005. However, this referendum was never held, with negotiations between north and south stalling over the question of who should be counted as a resident of the territory and thus who should be allowed to vote. Political positions hardened during first five months of 2011 and following skirmishes on 19 May, a full-scale attack was launched by northern forces. By 22 May civilians from the area had fled southwards across the Bahr el Arab/River Kiir triggering a multi-sectoral response in order for humanitarian partners to meet emergency needs in the most heavily affected areas. This operation is still ongoing almost three months after violence erupted.

“The likelihood of a crisis in the Abyei area was very high” said OCHA Head of Office in South Sudan Mr. Giovanni Bosco. “We had planned for nearly all people in the area to flee if fighting broke out and that they would need assistance from partners in the South.”

Effective contingency planning has enabled a timely and effective response for the displaced from Abyei, but prospects for returning are still unclear and challenges remain.

In South Sudan’s Warrap State, where the majority of the displaced have fled, a combination of border insecurity and activity by rebel militia has meant that many already vulnerable people have been repeatedly uprooted. The situation has compounded hardship for the displaced and complicated population tracking and emergency response. 

William Gor Majok, one of the tens of thousands people who fled for safety in South Sudan, was present in the town of Turalei when rebel militia attacked in late June.

“We ran from Abyei. We ran to Aneet (15km south). We came here and set up a shelter digging with my hands until they blistered,” he said. “And when it was ready, we had to run again.”

Hopes for progress increased at the end of June, when the governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan signed an agreement to demilitarise the Abyei Area with the exception of the deployment of an UN-interim security force for Abyei (UNISFA) composed of Ethiopian troops. The peace-keeping missionwas formally authorised by the UN Security Council in late June and by early August, some 1,300 troops had arrived in Abyei, increasing prospects for people to return to their homeland. Local authorities have reported that some displaced people have already crossed Bahr el Arab/Kiir River to check on their property following news of the peacekeepers’ arrival. However, both local authorities and UN peacekeepers have advised against premature returns due to the high risk of landmines and unexploded ordnances in the area. Until the situation has stabilized, people who were displaced by the fighting will remain uprooted.

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