When I was an aid worker in southern Sudan in the 1990s, the fight for independence against Sudan had already been running for many years. It was Africa’s longest civil war – but there was hope. Hope that the fighting would one day end and South Sudan would become its own country with its own leaders, and that security, stability and development would follow.
Part of that hope was realized. A peace deal was signed in 2005 and, in July 2011, South Sudan became its own country – but security, stability and development have not followed. The fighting that began again in December 2013 shows no sign of ending. Upper Nile and Unity states last month witnessed some of the most brutal violence seen so far in this conflict, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes. In Unity state, civilians were deliberately targeted. The UN reported dozens of children were killed, at least 12 raped, and others abducted and recruited.
Amidst all of this pain and suffering are the people of South Sudan. The UN estimates more than four million – over one third of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Almost two million South Sudanese are displaced: over 500,000 are living as refugees in neighboring countries and around 135,000 have sought refuge in protection sites at UN bases around the country. The rest live in local communities, many of them cut off from assistance either by fighting, by poor or non-existent roads, by seasonal flooding – or all three.
It’s these people that CARE is helping. In northern Unity state, we are assisting the County Health Department to provide health services for South Sudanese living in remote communities in places like Guit county. Without these services, the closest assistance is the Protection of Civilian site at the UN base in Bentiu. Theoretically a mere 15 minute drive away, in reality, a three day trek through rivers and swamps, and around multiple frontlines. Accessing basic healthcare should never be like this.
These clinics are also providing vital nutrition assistance. Malnutrition rates in northern Unity state have reached critical levels. In April, CARE recorded Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rates of 30 percent, 26 percent, and 23.4 percent in three counties, well above the threshold of 15 percent which calls for immediate humanitarian intervention.
Many of these clinics were attacked during last month’s fighting. But we’re not giving up. Staff did the best they could, often at perilously short notice, to save equipment and life-saving drugs for the affected population.
Today South Sudan stands on the brink. The economy is buckling under the weight of 18 months of conflict, under bad governance and corruption, and plunging oil prices. Costs are soaring, especially for staples such as flour. For ordinary South Sudanese, who spend around 80 percent of their income on food, this is life-threatening.
Funding for South Sudan has fallen – these are difficult times across the globe – but the international community cannot and must not give up. Even if fighting were to stop today, the impact of 18 months of destruction on lives and livelihoods will be felt for years to come.
The assistance we provide today must take the long view for South Sudan’s future. The local healthcare system, for example, should be the focus of humanitarian health interventions, bringing humanitarian actors and local health workers together to both save lives in the short term and help to build longer term resilience to best serve the needs of the South Sudanese people.
And we should advocate for peace. A political solution must be found that will stop the violence and begin to build a future of security, stability and development. Throughout this crisis, the people of South Sudan have shown extraordinary resilience and dignity. They continue to hope for a better future, and we must not disappoint that hope.