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Bentiu, South Sudan—The battle for Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity State, started around 6:30 am Tuesday as I sat beneath a tree sending emails to colleagues a half a world away.
The arrival of a clash that rumors had spoken of for days was signaled by the hollow sound of an anti-aircraft gun being fired in front of a pro-government base. Then tracer rounds streaked through the air, some passing over my head, and an emergency siren sent everyone to the bomb shelter. Six rounds hit the base of UNMISS, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, causing limited damage and no injuries.
Opposition forces surrounded Bentiu and the adjacent town of Rubkona. At 8:30 am, we heard intense small arms fire for about 15 minutes, apparently killing more than 45 people and sending around 3,000 fleeing for safety to the hospital.
The skirmish continued moving south until about 2:30 pm, when opposition forces appeared to carry out small operations to remove pockets of resistance that still remained.
By late afternoon, the commanders of the opposition had moved into Bentiu to consolidate their position.
Yesterday, April 16, minor clashes still continued, but the opposition forces are in control of Bentiu—and apparently of the oil fields within the state, a vital financial lifeline for the government in Juba.
I have been in Bentiu along with three other colleagues, delivering water, building toilets, and providing nutrition support to children under five for those most affected by the conflict, which erupted on December 15, 2013 in Juba and quickly spread throughout the country.
Over the past four months, control of Bentiu has ping-ponged between the government and its opposition. With each bout of fighting, civilian suffering and uncertainty deepens.
I planned to implement a shelter support program with distributions scheduled to start on the day the battle broke out. This has been put on hold until the population stabilizes in the “protection of civilian” (POC) sites, as the number of people seeking refuge skyrocketed in recent days and continues to rise. Just a few days ago, our team was supplying water and sanitation to some 6,000 people, treating water from an open source to ensure there was enough. Today, the number seeking that help has more than doubled. By Sunday, we expect 16,000 to seek shelter in the POC sites.
Meeting this increased demand will be our biggest priority. While our movements off the base are limited, Concern, together with Mercy Corps, was able to deliver 96,000 liters of treated water (four tankers) to the internally displaced yesterday. This is well below what is considered to be the minimum standard for water supply, but is a great achievement as the only other sources available to the people are unprotected and unclean.
In addition to water, we provided 60 emergency latrines yesterday and hope to increase this to 152 by Friday. We are also continuing our hygiene promotion activities, together with UNICEF, and distributed more than 1,000 buckets, more than 18,400 sachets of water purification chemicals, and cloth filters today.
Even as we work, though, there are fresh rumors, this time that government forces are reorganizing to attempt to retake the city. Concern plans to remain so that we continue to deliver clean drinking water, toilets, and other lifesaving assistance to the thousands caught in the crossfire for control over Bentiu, Unity State, and ultimately, the world’s newest nation.
Concern Worldwide is working with those affected by the conflict in South Sudan, distributing emergency food and household supplies, providing water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and treating malnutrition in young children. For more, visit concernusa.org.