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South Sudan in crisis

Sarah John walked hundreds of miles with her four children to reach the MSF camps on the South Sudanese border with Kenya. Photo: Wairimu Gitau, MSF.Sarah John walked hundreds of miles with her four children (pictured) to reach the Medicins Sans Frontier camps on the South Sudanese border with Kenya. Aged between two and seven, the children are among almost one million refugees fleeing conflict in the world’s newest nation.

Almost three years ago the world looked on as South Sudan celebrated independence, and looked to the future. But in December agreement between the main ethnic groups came to a violent end.

An uneasy alliance between the President and Vice-President broke in July when the VP was dismissed. Violence broke out in mid-December, and reports of armed soldiers on the streets signaled an end to peace. A ceasefire declared on January 23rd has not lessened the violence.

UNHCR estimated this month there are “over 739,000 people … internally displaced and a further 196,921 sheltering in neighbouring countries” because of the escalating conflict.

A senior MSF medic told an audience in Dublin earlier this month that the situation can now be described as a crisis.

Retired British surgeon Professor Paul McMaster worked in South Sudan for a month from Christmas, joining over 3,000 local and international staff on the ground.

‘It was just after midnight when they called me to see a young girl of about 12 who had collapsed. Sitting on the floor next to her, was her seven or eight year old brother.

‘She had walked three or four days from the North, without food or water, her father had stayed behind and they had been separated from their mother. Her only carer was her brother. It was Christmas morning,’ he said.

He struggled at times as he spoke to describe the overwhelming nature of the challenges. Prof McMaster said the medical infrastructure had been almost non-existent even before the fighting began, and now there is little help. Even water must be provided as people in the camps are surviving temperatures of 38 degrees on just over one litre of water daily.

He showed pictures of a hospital refurbished by MSF just last year, now burned to the ground with shattered operating tables over-turned on the red earth. Local medics and nurses, including an anesthetist named James, have fled into the bush with the patients; continuing to treat people with equipment rescued from the flames.

In the town of Lankien where MSF are supported by Irish Aid funding, the population of three to four thousand has swollen to over 20,000.

The professor said: ‘It is difficult to convey what it is like to come into a place and the whole population is on the move towards you, with their belongings on their heads many of them. People are walking, walking, heading to where they feel comfortable, to ethnic strongholds’

Farmers in the region should be preparing to plant crops now. This month the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in South Sudan warned unless crops are planted in the next three months, the country is facing disaster.

Toby Lanzer told Reuters: “Right now what the civilians need most, is the ability to move their cattle, tend to their fields and plant. And if they do, then the people of South Sudan can do an awful lot to help themselves weather this abominable situation."

He added: "But if they can't, if violence continues - and there's a high risk of that in some of the key states, which are the most food insecure and which are the most prone to flooding - then the outlook for the humanitarian situation is very dire."

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