Sleepless in South Sudan
Aimee Ansari, Country Director, South Sudan
April 26, 2014
Twenty plus years in the international aid business and I’ve never been in a situation like this before. The normal words – tragic, heart wrenching, outrageous – seem superficial. It’s soul destroying. It’s worse than that. I smelled the decaying bodies in Haiti after the earthquake and I got ill because of the terrible fumes of the dead buried under buildings in Lebanon after the bombings – that was nothing compared to the massacres and violence happening in South Sudan now. I won’t go into the details; they’re too gory, too much everything. It’s easier for me to keep our teams motivated and moving forward if I don’t dwell too much on the terrible.
This week, on Easter Sunday, CARE teams were out banging on the doors of medical goods suppliers trying to find the goods our team in Bentiu so desperately needed. The health team in Bentiu, a multi-agency effort behind the protective walls of the UN compound, had treated several hundred patients during and after the terrible violence, some say slaughter, in the town. The team has worked tirelessly through the night, treating hundreds of wounded; they were incredible. We needed to get supplies to them urgently. So we chartered a UN plane, pestered relevant authorities to get clearances, worked all week-end and finally got everything on a plane and to Bentiu. We were lucky; that was one of the last UN flights that was able to get there. Since then, UN flights have been postponed.
This week, people in the UN compound had just 1-4 litres of water per day in Bentiu. Not only for the displaced South Sudanese, for our staff too. Women are being raped and have no safe place to go. The displaced population seeking refuge with the UN in Bentiu almost tripled in just a few days after the town was taken over on April 14th and 15th. CARE is leading in nutrition there and a partner in health and water, sanitation, hygiene. We’ve got five staff in Juba we want to send in and just can’t because we been unable to fly to Bentiu. And the roads are impassable. We have staff that need to come out – the violence, the severity of the situation has been difficult for many of our staff to cope with. And this is just a glimpse of the situation in Bentiu.
In Jonglei, one CARE supported clinic saw over 100 gunshot wounds over the past two days. Our staff have been on stand-by to relocate just in case the fighting gets too close. In three states, CARE staff are working hard – treating patients, supporting women to give birth safely, helping with the water supply in the UN compounds, providing sanitation services to prevent deadly outbreaks, and helping to ensure that people can get the relief and protection they need.
At the same time across the country people are enduring a food crisis. We haven’t been able to get enough food, seeds, tools, and fishing gear to people to avert the crisis. So, in addition to helping people caught up in the conflict, we’re also trying to prevent or at least mitigate a possible famine. Seven million people may be affected. Seven million! Imagine watching the entire city of London going hungry as you try desperately to help them.
Aid agencies, like CARE, are doing a tremendous amount of work. CARE is supporting about 50 health facilities; we have already helped about 100,000 people with water, sanitation, nutrition and health care. It is a lot and absolutely needed; but it will never be enough. Only a political solution can stop the violence.
Reaching a political solution isn’t about the peace talks taking place in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa – they seem to have no outcome. In South Sudan, ending the violence is about holding all responsible parties to account for the atrocities that have been committed here and using this to build a system of governance where no one is able to do this again. This is not a short-term solution, but it must be started now.
A friend, colleague and much respected professional noted that South Sudan doesn’t produce weapons. It took me a minute to get her point. All conflicting parties in this country have guns and they all use them against civilians. But the guns have to come from outside – they have to be given or sold to the parties in conflict. People can’t shoot each other if they don’t have bullets or guns.
Most nights I go home and collapse in bed. I try to find time to go to the gym, but I’m often interrupted by security alerts that need my urgent attention. My hope is that one day soon all leaders will look around and take stock of the enormous cost of this conflict in human suffering and find a solution alleviates the pain being endured by the and help the poorest and most vulnerable. Then maybe I can get some sleep.
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