NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations is preparing to deliver emergency medical care to tens of thousands of displaced people in South Sudan’s troubled Jonglei state, almost a month after they fled into the bush to escape conflict.
The area’s main towns of Pibor and Boma are still deserted, amid a heavy military presence, as civilians are too scared to seek food or medicines, military and aid officials said.
On Wednesday, the U.N. said it had received $5.4 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund to buy two helicopters and medical equipment to treat or evacuate civilians injured in clashes in the eastern state of Jonglei, the largest in South Sudan.
“Civilians have been fleeing from hostilities, and some of them have been caught in crossfire,” Toby Lanzer, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Violence has escalated in Jonglei since March, when the army launched an offensive against rebels, led by David Yau Yau, who say they want to end corruption and the dominance of the ruling party.
No medical services are available for the 140,000 people living in Pibor county, Lanzer said. Hospitals run by medical charities Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Merlin in the towns of Pibor and Boma were looted last month.
“We’re just working on the final details now to help the non-governmental organisations to get back on the ground,” Lanzer said, adding that the helicopters were due to arrive in the next couple of days.
It is now the rainy season, when much of Jonglei becomes a swamp and small aircraft cannot land. Roads are only passable after several dry days.
On May 7, rebels captured and held Boma, on the southeastern tip of the state, for two weeks. Aid agencies and town residents fled.
On May 10, the town of Pibor, about 150 km northwest of Boma, was also deserted due to nearby fighting between the army and rebels. Security forces ransacked homes and compounds of aid agencies in Pibor.
The army said the damage was caused by officers who defected from a state wildlife force, and denied regular soldiers were behind the attack.
TRAPPED IN SWAMPS
MSF’s head of mission in South Sudan, Vikki Stienen, said the U.N. money would achieve little unless civilians were able to return to Pibor and Boma to receive help. He said the towns were virtually deserted.
“There are still some 120,000 people missing,” he said. “They are trapped out in the swamps, and it is getting wetter and wetter without a way now for us to access them.”
Stienen said people were scared to come to the towns because of rumours that some have been killed as suspected rebels.
“It’s very difficult for them to explain to the government soldiers that they are not the rebels,” he said.
Pibor is predominantly Murle, Yau Yau’s ethnic group. They are a minority who have been marginalised and also embroiled in a long-running conflict over land and cattle with the Lou Nuer, which has a strong presence in the army.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said that civilians are too scared to return to Pibor because Yau Yau had ordered them to leave. He called upon them to return to town.
Stienen said some of the displaced will already have died.
“There’s no food. There’s no access to safe water with diarrhoea, of course, becoming a problem, with malaria cropping up, with no access to health care, with trauma from being expelled,” he said. “That is, of course, the worst case scenario that we can look at.”
This year, more than 19,000 people have fled Jonglei for neighbouring countries, the U.N. has said. Stienen said another 11,000 have sought refuge in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
Since winning independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has been struggling to impose its authority across vast swathes of territory teeming with weapons after decades of civil war with Khartoum.
Yau Yau, a former theology student, launched the rebellion in 2010 after failing to win a seat in state parliament. He was granted amnesty in 2011, only to take up arms again a year later.
Ethnic violence has killed more than 1,600 people in Jonglei since South Sudan's independence.