Hungry for Peace: Conflict in South Sudan Taking Big Toll on Most Vulnerable
BENTIU, South Sudan – Nyakuic Tap brought her baby to CARE’s mobile clinic set up under a shade tree in the dirt yard of Bentiu’s Catholic church. welve-month old Giunb Tap alternately tried to breast feed and whined. A clinical officer used a multi-colored paper band with a slot in it to measure the child’s middle upper arm circumference. At 10.5 cm, little Giunb fell squarely into the red zone, indicating that the child suffered from severe acute malnutrition.
“I don’t have enough food for myself,” Nyakuic said. “I can’t produce enough milk for the baby. We used to have cows for milk, but because of the fighting they took to cows off to someplace where they would be safe.” Not so the women and children.
“Woman have assumed most of the burden for caring for families at a time when many of them are essentially homeless, they are at risk of violence and the food situation in South Sudan is getting to a critical level,” said CARE Country Director Aimee Ansari. “In some places where we are going to distribute seed and farm tools so people can plant food crops, we have to figure out how to feed people first because they are too weak to work the land.”
CARE’s mobile clinic staff gave Nyakuic packets of rehydration therapy powder and a referral, telling her to take the child to the area for civilian protection inside Bentiu’s large UN base, where CARE runs a nutrition clinic for malnourished children. The therapy provided there is very basic but effective at reversing an otherwise debilitating and often fatal condition.
But later that night and all the next morning, the towns of Bentiu and neighboring Rubkona were in a panic over rumors of an impending attack. There was a steady stream of people walking down the dirt road with whatever possessions they could carry toward the UN base, which has set up a protection of civilians area (PoC) filled with makeshift shelters covered with white tarps provided by the humanitarian community. The people of Bentiu have been moving in and out of this PoC area for months now, as the town changed hands several times between government and opposition forces. Each time, human rights abuses were visited on those civilians unfortunate enough to be caught in the town.
CARE is supporting the health system set up for these displaced people, providing nursing and clinical personnel, sanitation facilities and a communal kitchen. The last occupation of Bentiu occurred in mid April, boosting the PoC population from about 8,000 to over 22,000. Hundreds more were streaming into the compound as a result of the latest threat, and CARE got to work building additional latrines and strategically deploying its health workers.
CARE is also hard at work reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced and or desperate throughout the northern region of South Sudan, where a brutal conflict has raged for more than 4 months. At least 1.3 million people, probably more than 10 percent of the population, have been displaced from their homes and livelihoods. CARE has had a presence in the most affected areas of the country for more than 15 years, and is using its networks to provide health care and help people get back on their feet economically, by providing seed and farming tools, repairing water wells and helping with sanitation facilities.
The situation in Bentiu has been so unpredictable or outright dangerous that CARE’s activities have been largely confined to the UN Base and its PoC. CARE medical staff venture out of the UN compound when it is safe enough to go into town and for townspeople to venture out for medical treatment. The mobile clinic consists of a handful of clinical and support staff, basic diagnostic tools, boxes of medicines and plastic tables and chairs which can be hastily assembled under a shade tree, or quickly packed into the back of a utility vehicle and hauled back to the UN base.
With rumors of approaching troops, townspeople have to make a choice: run for the bush and the relative safety of remote villages or head for the PoC. Because she had not been living on the UN compound, CARE staff wondered which direction Nyakuic would run. If she headed back into the bush, chances are that without proper therapy her little girl would not long survive.