NGOs on the frontline of South Sudan’s forgotten war

NGOs on the frontline of South Sudan’s forgotten war©Stefanie GLINSKI, AFP
NGOs say the biggest problem in South Sudan is hunger, especially since the conflict spread in 2016 to the country’s bread-basket south
5 min 14Approximate reading time

As the United Nations Human Rights Council this week heard a new report on abuses in South Sudan, we look at how two Swiss non-governmental groups are working against the odds to help alleviate the suffering of the population.

On Tuesday March 13, the Human Rights Council discussed a UN commission report documenting new abuses against civilians in South Sudan, including gang rapes, beheadings and blindings. “We talk of a crime against humanity of persecution with an ethnic dimension,” says commission member Andrew Clapham, professor of international law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, “and in those instances we felt there was a deliberate attempt to humiliate people because of their ethnicity and to get them to move on or move out.”

The commission says there is enough evidence to launch judicial investigations against more than 40 senior South Sudanese officers and officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity (see box for more on our interview with Andrew Clapham).

South Sudan, which is at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, fought two wars against Khartoum (1955-72 and 1983-2005), before finally achieving independence from Sudan in 2011 to become the world’s newest country. But the optimism of independence did not last long. In December 2013, political rivalry between President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and ex-Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, spilled over into civil war. The conflict has claimed innumerable lives and forced millions from their homes.

“The fourth year of South Sudan’s civil war saw a severe deterioration of humanitarian conditions across the country,” says the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been working in the country since well before its independence from Sudan. It says 2017 saw intense fighting with shifting frontlines, and the number of war wounded people that the ICRC evacuated by air for surgical medical care almost doubled compared with 2016 (834 weapon wounded people evacuated and 1,685 treated in ICRC supported hospitals).

“This is an important aspect of our medical work,” ICRC Communications Coordinator in South Sudan Robin Waudo told from the capital Juba. “You have wounded from the fighting in different areas, sometimes because of the political conflict but it can also be related to cattle-raiding, where one group wants to raid the cattle of the other side, and then we’ve got casualties.”


But the biggest problem, according to NGOs, is hunger, especially since the conflict spread in 2016 to the country’s bread-basket south. “I don’t think there are many other places in the world right now, except for Yemen, that are in such a dire humanitarian situation due to a conflict,” says Martin Morand of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss NGO focused on children, which has been working in South Sudan since 2014. “We recently got more information on the prospects for 2018 and it shows that over seven million people are likely to be severely food insecure, and that food insecurity will affect 90% of the population.”

In South Sudan, Terre des Hommes focuses on health and nutrition, child protection and food security, working mostly in the south of the country. Morand says all the problems affecting the population, including access to food, education and health, hit children the hardest. Children are also victims of trafficking, forced prostitution and being forced to fight with armed groups. “Ninety per cent of the people in refugee camps are women and children,” he adds.

The ICRC works across South Sudan, which is currently its third largest operation in the world after Syria and Iraq. This reflects the scale of the needs, it says. As well as providing medical services, it also works on supplying food and clean water, visiting detainees and helping to reunite families separated by the conflict. Medical activities include physical rehabilitation for war victims.

“Some of those who have been affected by the conflict and had amputations we provide with devices for mobility so they can walk again, or wheelchairs, or prosthetic limbs,” says Waudo. “We even fly people into Juba, where they get the treatment, and then we fly them back home.”

A host of challenges

Both NGOs stress the challenges of working in South Sudan. “Security is a big problem in this country,” says Waudo. “We are working in a conflict situation. To be able to operate, we need to get security guarantees that our teams will be able to get in and out safely and assist the civilians.”

Last September, an ICRC driver was shot and killed while helping to deliver aid in Western Equatoria in the south of the country. It subsequently suspended most of its activities in the region, resuming a month later “after receiving security reassurances from the concerned parties”. The ICRC stresses that as a neutral party, it maintains dialogue with all parties to the conflict.

Martin Morand of Terre des Hommes says the main problem is humanitarian access, for a number of reasons, but first of all because of the conflict. “It’s a conflict which is hard to read, so it’s not easy to negotiate access in some areas,” he told “You need to negotiate with people, but you don’t necessarily know who they are or how to access them.”

Like other NGOs, Terre des Hommes has also suffered from looting, robberies and banditry. The lack of infrastructure in South Sudan, which is a vast territory, is another major challenge. “The country is probably one of the least developed in the world, so the roads are really bad,” says Morand. “The only way is helicopter or plane, especially in the rainy season when half the country is turned into a swamp and the roads just disappear.”

Then there is the catastrophic economic situation of South Sudan, despite its potential oil wealth. Rampant inflation makes it hard for anyone operating there to budget efficiently. And finally, there is donor fatigue. “Donors are a bit tired of funding operations in South Sudan because if you rehabilitate a health post, for example, a year later it may be looted, destroyed with everything stolen, and you have to redo it again and again,” says Morand.

“The lack of funding is really affecting our work,” he says. “But the situation is dire. When you think that 90% of the population is suffering from hunger, it’s just staggering.”

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Justice for South Sudan? The UN Commission says there is enough evidence to investigate more than 40 people in South Sudan for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Who should investigate?

Andrew Clapham: The recommendation is that it should be the prosecutor of the new hybrid court. That court is about to be established, we hope, by the African Union, in cooperation with South Sudan. There is already a statute that has been agreed, and the South Sudanese cabinet has adopted that and passed it on for signature between the government and the African Union. So we are waiting for the court to come into existence. People have been talking about this court for many months. Is there a real sense that it is going to happen?

Andrew Clapham: You are right that people have been saying this for months, but maybe it is coming to a head now. We would hope that the momentum of the report makes it clear this should happen now, not least because the evidence that we have gathered and were asked to preserve is time-dependent. For example, women who have given their testimony on what they have seen or what happened to them won’t necessarily stay in the same place, and might be difficult to track down later. So this needs to be done now for the restoration of peace and a sense of accountability, but also for very practical reasons of not letting the evidence trail go cold. What do you hope for in terms of action from the UN Human Rights Council?

Andrew Clapham: Our recommendations include that they should get behind the idea of the African Union court and some of the other recommendations relating to reparations for victims, even before the court is set up, in a parallel reconciliation process.  Then there should be a clear sense that the government should condemn these violations, that they should stop, and that if not there will be repercussions.