NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Weak and elderly patients sat and watched helplessly as soldiers rampaged through Malakal Teaching Hospital in South Sudan's main oil-producing region, shooting those who had no money or mobile phones to hand over, survivors recalled.
Malakal, a town on the fringe of Upper Nile state’s oil fields, was attacked by rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar on Feb. 18, triggering three days of fighting – the heaviest since the government and rebels signed a Jan. 23 ceasefire deal.
Since fighting erupted in December, killing thousands and displacing more than 880,000 people across South Sudan, vital medical facilities have been destroyed.
When aid workers from the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ventured into the hospital in Malakal on Feb. 22, they found much of it had been looted and many of the wards burned.
“MSF teams discovered at least 14 dead bodies throughout the Malakal Teaching Hospital compound, scattered among 50 to 75 patients who remained in the facility, too weak or elderly to flee,” MSF said in a statement on Wednesday.
KILLED IN THEIR BEDS
Seventeen patients were transferred to a hospital on the overcrowded United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base, where more than 20,000 people have been sheltering for weeks, the U.N. said in its latest update.
MSF said 13 of those rescued from Malakal hospital were treated for gunshot wounds.
“Armed groups entered the hospital on Feb. 19 and shot dead people who had no money or mobile phones to hand over,” evacuated survivors told MSF.
“Later that afternoon, armed men returned and killed patients in their beds and others who had fled to the operating theatre for safety… They also reportedly raped women and young girls.”
UNMISS described Malakal as “tense” with signs of looting and burning, and more than 100 bodies strewn in the streets.
“I can find no words to describe the brutality in Malakal, which has left in its wake a ransacked city and a thoroughly traumatised people,” said Carlos Francisco, MSF’s emergency coordinator in Malakal.
The U.N. said aid workers are seeking to transfer 1,700 civilians sheltering in a church to the U.N. base. Other organisations, such as SOS Children’s Village, a charity hosting orphans in Malakal, are also negotiating for space in the crowded camp.
“In previous weeks, we have avoided moving children to UNMISS due to overcrowding. Given the current danger, this now appears to be the safest option,” the charity said.
Agencies are trying to set up another safe location for displaced civilians in Malakal, the U.N. said, but it will only be able to accommodate 5,800 people.
More than 80 aid workers were flown out of Malakal after the firefight subsided, leaving only critical staff on the ground.
On Feb. 24, World Vision reported that fighting had moved to Rom, some 80km north of Malakal, further hindering efforts to reach displaced people hiding along riverbanks and behind shrubs.
It is not the first time that hospital patients have been killed, with similar scenes reported in Bor, capital of Jonglei state.
“In early February, MSF staff visited the hospital and discovered the decomposed corpses of a mother and child dumped in the facility’s water tank,” it said.
Probably worst affected is Unity state’s Leer Hospital, which was destroyed in late January. Not a single bed remains in the facility, which was the only secondary healthcare centre for 300,000 people in the area.
MSF’s 240 local staff have fled into the bush with their patients and the town’s population.
“Staff report they are reusing wound dressings and trying desperately to assist the displaced who have grown more ill from drinking dirty river water and from eating water lilies for lack of food,” MSF said.
It said that “countless people” will suffer and likely die for want of medical care.