A year after shots rang out in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, sparking the start of a civil war, violence has ravaged the world’s newest state and left almost half of the population needing aid to survive.
Peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia have made no progress in resolving a political dispute that transformed into a battle between President Salva Kiir’s Dinka people and the mainly rebel ethnic Nuer forces led by his former deputy, Riek Machar. Both sides blame each other for the violence that has cut oil production by at least a third to 160,000 barrels a day.
Three years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan following five decades of war, the United Nations says it needs $600 million by February to care for the 4.1 million people requiring aid. Tens of thousands of people have died in the fighting, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday. In some areas, people eat water lilies to survive.
“The leaders of South Sudan have allowed their personal ambitions to jeopardize the future of an entire nation,” Ban said. “The very premise of the country’s independence struggle – a new beginning that was supposed to be founded on tolerance, good governance, accountability and unity – is disappearing before our eyes.”
The young have been hardest hit, with the U.N. estimating that almost three-quarters of a million children are internally displaced and more than 320,000 are living as refugees.
“An estimated 400,000 children have been forced out of school and 12,000 are reported as being used by armed forces and groups in the conflict,” Jonathan Veitch, the U.N. Children’s Fund representative in South Sudan, said in a statement.
More than 100,000 people are sheltering in camps inside South Sudan under the protection of U.N. peacekeeping forces, said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan analyst with Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“The failure of major powers, including the U.S., to take stronger action to stop the war, has left the U.N. in this difficult position,” she said by phone.
The conflict has wrecked South Sudan’s health-care system, Karin Ekholm, a spokeswoman for medical charity Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, said by e-mail.
“Nearly 2 million people displaced from their homes, outbreaks of kala azar, cholera and malaria, and the already fragile health-care system is devastated,” she said.
President Barack Obama urged South Sudan’s leaders last week to resolve the dispute peacefully.
“It is in your hands to end the cycle of violence, to set forth on a course of reform and reconciliation, and to hold to account those responsible for atrocities,” he said in a Dec. 12 statement.
Repeated cease-fires brokered by East African mediators in Ethiopia have been violated.
“Until today nobody knows how many thousands have been killed,” the top mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, told reporters Monday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. “The war is so cruel that nobody has even indicated whether they hold prisoners of war.”
Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, dismissed rebel demands that Kiir resign as president and said the government, unlike the insurgents, is ready for peace.
“The rebels are the spoilt child of the international community,” he said by phone from Juba. “They are promoting their generals and preparing to fight. They are not sticking to the peace agreement.”
As fighting intensifies during the current dry season, aid agencies and civil-society organizations say the world may lose patience and relegate South Sudan’s conflict to a forgotten war.
“There is also fighting in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq,” John Marial Mayom, fundraising coordinator for the South Sudan Red Cross Society, said via phone in Juba. “So South Sudan may become a forgotten story.”
William Davison in Addis Ababa contributed.