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South Sudan: on the edge of a humanitarian tragedy

By Oli Filler, Emergency Response Personnel, Save the Children, South Sudan

As we took cover under the containers scattered throughout the compound of the World Food Programme in Bentiu, the thoughts rushing through my mind were charged with frustration.

Only two days ago I’d been conducting our first Parent Teacher Association meeting in the Nyiel refugee camp.

We tried to keep it to the 12 elected members, but there was no stopping the interested onlookers peering through the windows of the longhouse.

There was such optimism in the words spoken and the questions raised and answered – Save the Children’s new primary school was thriving.

 

Parent Teacher Association in the Nyiel UNHCR Settlement. Save the Children is providing primary school education and protection for over 500 students in Nyiel, and over 1,000 secondary school students in Pariang, who fled from Sudan into South Sudan due to fighting in the border areas.
Parent Teacher Association in the Nyiel Settlement. Save the Children is providing primary school education and protection for over 500 students in Nyiel, and over 1,000 secondary school students in Pariang, who fled from Sudan due to fighting in the border areas.

Terror

The planes remained overhead for a good few minutes, their most effective weapon deployed all the while: terror.

We waited for them to pass and then I went through all of the names of my colleagues on the phone: “Peter, are you safe”? “Simon, are you safe?” “Kennedy…”

The networks were down and it could take hours to account for all our colleagues. The lump in my throat was ever-present until that last phone call finally went through.

We could only hope that the planes didn’t hit the Nyiel, Pariang and Yida refugee settlements. We had no way to tell – there’s no mobile phone network in those areas.

The teachers might laugh at my concern; they have known decades of war – but the young children have been living in relative stability.

They came to South Sudan in search of peace and education. For the first time in decades, children here have the promise of a life without conflict.

 

A young refugee boy from South Kordofan, Sudan, in the Nyiel UNHCR Settlement. Save the Children is providing primary school education and protection for over 500 students in Nyiel who fled from Sudan into South Sudan due to fighting in the border areas.
A young refugee boy from South Kordofan, Sudan, in the Nyiel Settlement.

What a devastating betrayal this could become if the conflict continues.

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Humanitarian access is paramount

The details started to come in; where was it, what was it targeting, how many killed, how many wounded, will it come back, what’s the impact on our operations?

That last consideration is the easiest to answer, but the hardest to admit. The increasing hostility between Sudan and South Sudan risks displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Indiscriminate aerial bombardment is killing innocent people and spreading fear throughout the northern states.

The threat of landmines and the risk of children becoming separated from their families, being killed, injured or recruited into armed groups is increasing dramatically.

If international agencies are targeted then our ability to help those desperately in need of our assistance will be significantly reduced. Humanitarian access must remain open and secure.

 

UNHCR tents in the Pariang Settlement for refugees from South Kordofan, Sudan. Save the Children is providing secondary school education and protection for over 1,000 students in Pariang who fled from Sudan into South Sudan due to fighting in the border areas.
Tents in the Pariang Settlement for refugees in Unity state. Save the Children is providing secondary school education and protection for over 1,000 students in Pariang who fled from Sudan due to fighting in the border areas.

No clear target

“At 1830 hours there were two strikes of four missiles each from two SU-25 fighters. The first strike was 150 metres from the governor’s office and about 2km from the World Food Programme compounds; four walking wounded, one later died of his injuries.

“The second strike was a few hundred metres from the World Food Programme, one injured. Immediately following there was heavy anti-aircraft fire.”

Unlike Antonovs and MIGs, SU-25s are accurate air-to-ground fighters. However, there was no clear target in this instance.

It felt like this was a strike purely to instigate fear. Unlike the other more ‘hit and run’ style attacks, these aircraft stayed around, manoeuvring over the town quite visibly and then firing.

Our responsibility

The details always come in a clinical, detached fashion. It makes it easier to deal with and to plan. The emotion is for later.

We’re doing our best on the ground, but we need help. The children at the Nyiel Primary School need help.

Thousands of children have died over decades of civil war and now finally these children, here and now, have the hope of a normal, happy childhood.

We should not make these children wait any longer. We must keep this conflict in the media, in political debates and advocacy, and keep it in our thoughts.

We’re on the edge of a humanitarian tragedy in the South Sudan/Sudan border areas and we will all share a responsibility if we allow it to continue.

Help us reach children caught up in this crisis – donate to our Emergency Fund


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