South Sudan: Searching for safety

13 February, 2014
Feb 2014, Malakal, South Sudan: Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the crisis that has gripped South Sudan for almost two months. Credit: OCHA
Feb 2014, Malakal, South Sudan: Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the crisis that has gripped South Sudan for almost two months. Credit: OCHA

“They came to kill us, so we fled.”

Martha Acher’s voice is quiet but steady as she tells the story of the day, in late January, when she and her six children fled their home in Jonglei State. Now Martha and her family are sheltering in a small and dusty compound in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile State in South Sudan’s north-eastern corner.

The compound is normally used by the State Ministry of Labour, but is now the temporary home for several hundred people. Many sleep outside, without any protection from the blistering heat of the days and the surprising chill of the nights.

Like Martha, most of the people in the compound arrived in the past week. Many came on foot from villages up to a day’s walk away. Today they are being registered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – the first step towards receiving assistance from aid groups working in the area.

But people do not want to stay. They fear that the town will be attacked again. Local authorities are organizing transport to take people further north, towards smaller towns closer to the border with Sudan. “I want to take the children to Melut [a town further north]”, says Martha. “I think we will be safer there.”

A patchwork of displacement

The thousands of people transiting in Malakal represent only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who have been displaced since fighting began on 15 December. Patterns of displacement are fluid. Many are moving from towns hit by fighting to more peaceful parts of the country where they have family or other connections.

Others stay in the bush close to their homes; waiting to see if the situation will improve. One thing is clear: despite the agreement to cease hostilities signed by the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in late January, many people are still too afraid to return home.

The scale and fluidity of the displacement pose enormous challenge for aid workers. By the time a group of people have been registered to receive assistance, half will have moved on to a new location.

“The registration is going well,” says Susan Atala, a registration officer with IOM, as she inks the finger of an elderly lady who is being registered for assistance along with Martha and her family.

“The challenge is tracking where people go next, and making sure we are able to give them what they need to get through the journey. Many of the people here are old or sick. I am worried what will happen to them once they leave Malakal.”

Access and safety key to expand the response

Every day brings new reports of people fleeing, often into remote rural areas which are difficult for aid organizations to reach. One afternoon in early February, a young man from a local NGO rushed into the OCHA office in Malakal. He explained that thousands of people were huddled along the banks of the Nile; pushed from their villages by attackers, living off leaves and water drawn from the river.

Plans were quickly made to deploy a team to the area. However, the location of the community meant the team would need to cross a conflict line, meaning that access would need to be negotiated with both sides.

“Negotiating safe passage for aid workers and humanitarian supplies with all parties is a hugely important part of our work” says Vincent Lelei, head of the OCHA office in South Sudan. “It is often time-consuming, but it is the only way we can get assistance to all communities in need, without risking the lives of our colleagues.”

The OCHA team was able to negotiate access to the community, and have started working with humanitarian groups to provide them with basic healthcare, clean water and other support.

A massive task ahead

The humanitarian community in South Sudan has a massive task ahead. So far, 300,000 people displaced by violence have received assistance, out of the estimated 3.2 million people that aid groups are planning to reach by the end of June. The need to negotiate access is only one complicating factor. Logistical conditions are tough, with many displaced people scattered in areas which can only be reached by boat. Looting and attacks on humanitarian compounds are further hampering the capacity of agencies to deliver.

Part of the challenge will be to respond flexibly to rapidly changing circumstances. As aid agencies gear up the response, South Sudanese families continue to move.

“People are desperately searching for a safe place, an end to the bloodshed, and a chance to rebuild their lives,” explains Mr. Lelei. “As humanitarians, we are determined to stand with all communities struck by this crisis, to stay and deliver assistance wherever it is needed, and to help people through this exceptionally difficult time.”

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