A new humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Malakal, South Sudan, just days after an attack by government soldiers on a camp sheltering displaced people – the challenge of caring for tens of thousands of survivors.
Around 18 people died in the violence that began on Wednesday night following growing ethnic tensions between Dinka and Shilluk communities in the camp. Government soldiers broke into the UN-administered Protection of Civilians (PoC) facility and were involved in the fighting that intensified on Thursday, sending people fleeing the wild gun battles and a fire that destroyed half the camp.
Some 15,000 people, mostly Nuer and Shilluk, have taken shelter in a small, narrow strip of land near the UN Mission in South Sudan peacekeeping base, 500 meters from the PoC. Around 5,000 mainly Dinka have fled into nearby Malakal town and the protection of the largely Dinka army. Around 25,000 people are still living in parts of the PoC that escaped destruction.
It has created an alarming humanitarian situation that asks aid workers to do the near impossible — provide immediate services for 20,000 people suddenly displaced from their original site of refuge, and to plan the rebuilding of the camp.
“There is a general sense of insecurity so people have moved outside of the Protection of Civilians site,” said John McCue, head of operations for the International Organization for Migration in the capital, Juba.
“It’s completely untenable, it’s too small, it’s too crowded… there is nothing that can be done, the priority needs to be on UNMISS showing the population that they are able to provide security within the PoC. It’s the only solution. Otherwise we are looking at a major health risk.”
Some people have returned to the camp – even the sections that were torched – regarding it as a better option than the overcrowded, squalid conditions outside the UNMISS base.
“That place was not good,” said one man, who gave his name only as Hassan, indicating where thousands of displaced are building temporary shelters.
“No food, no water,” said his colleague, Emmanuel. “All of the food was here, but the violence (destroyed it)”.
Malakal town, where mainly Dinka fled to, is heavily militarised. Almost all men wear uniforms, weapons slung on their back, pacing the streets of South Sudan’s second largest city, which has been repeatedly fought over by government and rebel forces since 2013.
Here, there appear to be more services for the displaced — the Nile river is nearby to provide water and sanitation, and it is less crowded. The displaced in town are digging in for the long haul.
Angelina, who used to live in the PoC but fled to Malakal on Thursday, said many people are carrying their belongings from the camp to town “until the government tells us where to go”.
Among the Nuer and Shilluk who have taken refuge near the UN base, there is a sense of dismay at the failure of the peacekeepers to protect them. Many say they will return to the PoC only if UNMISS can guarantee their protection.
“I saw yesterday the [UN] soldiers run away. What happens next time, I don’t know,” said Emmanuel, who like Hassan had returned to the PoC on Friday. “I saw many people die. I don't know what happened with UNMISS.”
An UNMISS statement said its peacekeepers had exchanged fire with men "allegedly donning SPLA [army] uniforms" shooting into the base.
The 15,000 displaced outside the peacekeepers’ base have thrown up makeshift tents just centimetres apart – a clear fire risk as they are forced to use open fires to cook food and heat what water is available.
Rebuilding the PoC will take time. Two medical clinics inside the camp were destroyed — either victims of the spreading fires or the looting that came after.
It appeared that at least some of the fire in the PoC was caused by deliberate acts of arson. Sections where one ethnic group lived are a pile of ashes, yet a few feet away housing of another group was untouched by the flames.
South Sudan collapsed into civil war in 2013 when fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar. The conflict quickly took on ethnic overtones.
The UN warned last week that as a result of the war, 2.8 million people – nearly 25 percent of the population – are in urgent need of food assistance, and at least 40,000 people are “on the brink of catastrophe”.