SOUTH SUDAN: A year after mass killings in Bentiu, violence and displacement continue
GENEVA, Switzerland, April 17, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- One year after the mass killing of civilians in the oil town of Bentiu, South Sudan – including the killing of people sheltering in the hospital where MSF worked – the violence and displacement continue, while access to basic healthcare and food remains a problem for people living in rural areas outside the town.
Following the violence one year ago, MSF treated more than 230 people for gunshot wounds as thousands of the town's residents fled for their lives to the nearby UN peacekeepers' base, which swelled from 6,000 people to more than 22,000 within a matter of days. One year later, the number of people seeking protection in the UN base has significantly increased, with more than 53,000 displaced people living on a piece of land one km square which is cordoned off with barbed wire and guarded by UN troops.
From the start, living conditions for the displaced people sheltering within the UN base were life-threatening due to overcrowding and a lack of water and sanitation. Conditions became even worse during last year's rainy season, when the camp was completely flooded. With water levels above the knee, many were forced to sleep standing up with their children in their arms. Several people drowned. Since the arrival of the dry season, living conditions within the site have improved and various aid organisations are providing basic services to the people living within its confines. MSF is running a tented hospital to provide residents with quality secondary healthcare services, while working to ensure that people have access to sufficient clean water and sanitation facilities.
Providing humanitarian assistance within a UN base is an absolute last resort for MSF. As an independent, impartial and neutral medical aid organisation, we need to remain distinct from political and military actors. But in these extraordinary circumstances, with so much heightened tension and fear, it is vital for people to be able to access medical services where they feel safe.
MSF is also working outside the confines of the UN base, as the majority of people affected by the ongoing conflict remain dispersed in hard-to-reach rural areas, with many of them forced to move on again and again by fighting. MSF is providing mobile clinics in Ding Ding, Nhialdiu and in Bentiu town itself, with a focus on basic outpatient and maternal healthcare. Assessments in the surrounding areas continue – most recently in Nimni in Guit County and Ngop in Rubkona county.
A 28-year-old woman from Ngop whose severely malnourished child was admitted to hospital by MSF in February said, ''People have suffered so much because of the floods. It destroyed all of our crops, so there is nothing to eat. If you are sick, there is nowhere you can go. The nearest health facility we used to go to before the crisis no longer has any drugs.”
In the rural areas around Bentiu, in particular, the ongoing conflict has reduced people's access to healthcare. Local facilities often lack support and adequate medical supplies. Frontlines, military movements, ongoing shelling and gunfire mean that people are afraid to walk long distances to the few health facilities that are functioning.
Bentiu, the former vibrant state capital, is now a garrison town, with most businesses and market stalls run by government soldiers. Although the bodies of civilians which littered the streets after the fighting have been cleared away, the carcasses of abandoned vehicles remain at the side of the road. Most of the town's houses were burnt to the ground and have not been rebuilt. A melted TV remote control or lone iron bedframe on the scorched earth are the only clues to what once stood there. The modern hospital in town where MSF provided TB and HIV care has been ransacked, the windows and doors smashed, medical equipment and drugs scattered about. Infested with bats and vermin, it is no longer in use, although MSF does run a mobile clinic with a focus on antenatal care in an outbuilding that has been cleaned up.
As the conflict in South Sudan continues, there is no end in sight for the humanitarian situation in Bentiu. Ongoing insecurity, active fighting and shelling and violence against civilians in the vicinity mean that many displaced people currently living in the UN base have no choice but to remain for the foreseeable future. The need for assistance to this population, in a place where they feel safe, will continue.
In the meantime, MSF continues to provide medical care to more than 100,000 people in the area around Bentiu, although ensuring respect for humanitarian and medical facilities, staff and patients continues to be a challenge.