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Fighting, waterborne disease plague South Sudanese displaced during rainy season

August 15, 2014 at 6:47 PM EST
Eight months of civil war in South Sudan has forced more than 1.5 million people out of their homes. Even those who found shelter in United Nations camps around the country endure desperate living situations, made worse by the country’s rainy season. Special correspondent Nick Harper reports from the town of Malakal.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: After a lull of several weeks, fighting broke out again in the world’s newest nation today.

South Sudan declared independence from Sudan just three years ago, but has been gripped in a civil war among rival ethnic groups since last December. The conflict has sent more than a million-and-a-half people fleeing from their homes. And even those who are living in United Nations shelters endure desperate living conditions.

This week, members of the U.N. Security Council visited the nation to get a firsthand look at the situation.

Journalist Nick Harper, on assignment for the NewsHour, has an on-the-ground report from the town of Malakal.

NICK HARPER: Incredibly, despite appearances, this is a place of hope, a new start for 17,000 people who fled here when the fighting started in December.

Nearly everything they have has been given to them by aid agencies. But it doesn’t amount to very much. And now the rainy season has waterlogged much of Malakal’s U.N. compound, making already chaotic conditions almost unlivable.

MAN: I didn’t come here with my packages, just only the clothes that I wore. It is too difficult eventually here. A lot of rain. Where am I staying, sometimes, when the rain comes, it’s almost taking my tent.

NICK HARPER: Everywhere you look, there are similar stories of lives turned upside down, like Angelina, whose husband and teenage son were killed. She walked for several days to get here with her baby and the clothes they were wearing.

Veronica Kai is trying to move to higher ground after the waters flooded her shelter.

VERONICA KAI, Displaced resident (through interpreter): As you can see, life here is not good. We are moving to another place because it’s flooded here.

NICK HARPER: For now, the rain is holding off. This brief dry spell has allowed the waters to recede, revealing the wreckage beneath.

You only need to spend a few minutes here to realize how desperate the situation is. It’s as if the people living here have swapped one hell for another. Yes, they have escaped the fighting, but the camp has its own dangerous and difficulties to deal with.

The overcrowding has led to fighting, the flooding to waterborne diseases. The U.N. is hosting nearly 100,000 civilians inside compounds like this around the country. Even in the relative calm of the capital, Juba, 10,000 have sought shelter in Tomping camp. Land formerly used to park peacekeepers’ vehicles is now crowded with families.

Officials admit they can barely cope. But even still, with violence continuing, the U.N.’s representative in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, says people would rather stay here than risk returning home.

TOBY LANZER, UN Deputy Special Representative, South Sudan: There is still a palpable sense of fear.

In the absence of peace, people are unlikely to choose to go home. Should they wish to go home, we’re there to help them to do so. But as long as the fighting rages, as long as there really is an absence of a tangible peace process, I fear that people will want to stay in these sorts of sites for some time to come.

NICK HARPER: In December, fighting broke out, with the president, Salva Kiir, accusing his former vice president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup. It’s created an ethnic divide, with Kiir from the Dinka community, Machar from the Nuer.

Since then, they have signed two peace agreements, but both have been broken. And neither seems willing to accede the second-in-command position in a new transitional government.

The U.N. Security Council came to Malakal to see for themselves the conditions in the camp. A meeting with community leaders revealed the anger and frustration that people here feel with their leader’ procrastination.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power says the leaders need to break the deadlock.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the UN: I don’t think South Sudan has been forgotten. I think the whole region is focused on this crisis. There’s no shortage of attention to South Sudan. There’s a shortage of political will to bring peace to South Sudan on the part of the leaders.

NICK HARPER: And now the U.N. is warning the fighting is tipping the country towards famine. South Sudan is now on the brink of being unable to feed its population. The problem is, much of the country relies on homegrown food. But the violence means crops have not been planted.

In some areas, the U.N. can only airdrop supplies. In the town of Nida, the U.N.’s World Food Program has managed to deliver hundreds of tons of emergency aid, really just the most basic of human needs. But the odds are not in their favor. Four million people are already starving and the children are the hardest-hit.

One million under the age of 5 need treatment for acute malnutrition, and the U.N.’s children agency, UNICEF, estimates, this year, 50,000 will die for it.

Yet, still, the U.N.’s appeal for South Sudan remains chronically underfunded. Of the $1.8 billion needed, only half of that total has been met. Many, like this parent, simply can’t wait.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We have no food, and we survive on wild berries and roots. That is why my child is very sick.

NICK HARPER: Until South Sudan’s leaders come to a compromise, all of this will continue. For now, the displaced and dispossessed can only wait for the fighting and the rainy season to end.