It's been a grim week for aid workers in South Sudan.
On Monday, a pro-government militia in the contested oil-producing state of Upper Nile shot dead an employee of the humanitarian group Norwegian People's Aid. That murder was followed by the killings of five aid workers on Tuesday in the same region. Hundreds of others then evacuated the area, leaving behind 127,000 refugees who had depended on their assistance.
The killings underscore the immense difficulties humanitarians face in trying to save tens of thousands of lives. South Sudan's civil war is pushing the country toward famine, intensifying the need for outside aid. Yet violence against aid workers has been a striking component of the seven-month war, now considered one of the world's worst conflicts.
The United Nations warns that 3.9 million people need to be fed by year's end or 230,000 children will suffer acute malnutrition and 50,000 could die. Farmers have missed the planting season because of fighting, and militiamen have looted food stocks meant for hundreds of thousands of civilians.
A massive aid machine – currently the world's largest, according to the UN – is mobilizing to prevent that disaster scenario. But the barriers are high: Roads are nearly nonexistent here and are clogged by rainy season mud. Those needing food are dispersed across one of the world's largest grass swamps. Agencies are a billion dollars short of funds, and fighting prevents workers from reaching the worst hit places.
Suspicions of collusion
Perhaps most insidious is that both sides of the conflict, suspecting collusion by aid workers, continue to frustrate humanitarian efforts with direct attacks and daily harassment.
"If you're seen to be at any given moment helping one group, the assumption is you're supporting that group, even if at the same time you're helping a different group," says Anne Reitsema, head of the aid group MedAir's South Sudan program.
Ms. Reitsema, who stresses that MedAir is neutral and responds based on civilian need, describes the cascade of obstacles they face.
"Sometimes the supplies aren't there," she says. "And then when they finally are available, then it's raining [complicating travel], and then when it's finally not raining anymore, flights are just not available because of all the other needs of the country, and then you get a threat of the flight being shot at."
Indeed, in late July, rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at a humanitarian plane in Unity State. Earlier that month, government troops shelled rebel positions near a food distribution for 37,000 people, sending a World Food Programme (WFP) crew fleeing for their lives. During the heaviest fighting in the first quarter of 2014, health workers were executed and hospitals were burned to ashes. Millions of dollars' worth of vehicles, office supplies, and medicine have been looted.
This week's killings were carried out on the basis of ethnicity. The pro-government militia Mabanese Defense Force reportedly went door to door to humanitarian office compounds, asking if there were any staff of the Nuer tribe, the same group of the rebel leader Riek Machar. Mr. Machar took up arms in December to overthrow the government of President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, after a government-led massacre of hundreds of Nuer in the capital, Juba.
Aid workers divide by ethnicity
The ethnic nature of the war has forced aid groups to partition their South Sudanese staff based on tribe. Dinkas and aid workers from Uganda – whose government supports President Kiir– cannot access rebel-held areas, while Nuers cannot operate in government-controlled regions. That reality constrains operations due to the limited number of qualified local staff and higher expense of bringing in foreigners.
Threats and violence have come from both sides, but discussions with aid workers point to a pattern of the government putting in place daily bureaucratic hurdles for those trying to get provisions to rebel areas, which are the hardest hit by hunger. No aid groups would go on record about administrative difficulties, but some spoke of weeks spent waiting for lifesaving supplies to clear customs.
Cash for paying staff salaries and communications equipment come under special scrutiny when going to rebel areas. Only a handful of barges have been allowed to reach the Nuer-populated northeast using the Nile – normally South Sudan's transport lifeline – since the conflict began.
"We meet plenty of people in the government saying, 'have you reached such and such [place]?'" explains one aid official in Juba, who says colleagues have begun distributing aid to less affected government-controlled areas to convince authorities that they are indeed assisting civilians from both sides. "That's their village. They are interested in their population, their family, their area. I don't see a holistic approach or understanding of the humanitarian catastrophe that they're facing."
Official dictates carry little weight with militias
Allowing humanitarian access to civilians is an obligation under international law, and the government and the rebels have agreed three times to open aid corridors. The pronouncements of ministers, however, have little effect in the field where commanders of ragtag militias continue to issue threats, demand money, or force soldiers onto flights and vehicles. Aid workers in remote rebel or government areas quickly delete any text messages to their head offices, in case soldiers who demand their phones to check communications accuse them of relaying sensitive information.
Trucks carrying food aid have been harassed so often that the WFP now sends many of its convoys under armed guard.
"They ask you for your clearance papers, 50 [South Sudanese] pounds," says Bandicago Simon, a WFP-contracted driver who was once accosted by gunmen outside Juba. "Another one wants your visa, 20 pounds. By the time you do all the roadblocks, you could spend 300 pounds. As a convoy of 46 trucks, that's over 10,000 pounds."
Such difficulties are one reason why most aid groups concentrate on South Sudan's relatively accessible UN bases, where 100,000 people take shelter, but that leaves some 90 percent of internally displaced civilians mostly beyond reach.
"I met a woman who walked for eight hours with two kids [through a war zone to reach us]," says Aimee Ansari, country director for CARE International. "We could have gotten food to her if the fighting had stopped, if our vehicles hadn't been looted, if we could get out of the [UN bases]."
Then there's the mud
Despite all this, aid groups say that the biggest hindrance to helping civilians is weather. South Sudan is the size of Texas, but there are only a few hundred miles of paved routes. The ongoing wet season turns the black cotton soil into sticky mud soup. Mr. Simon of WFP recalls a time when it took three weeks to go 100 miles due to rain.
When aid does get through, however, aid workers say it's worth the effort.
"You can see it when you go to a place where it's needed," says Simon, recalling when he was part of the first convoy to reach one northern refugee camp after a month of conflict, and dancing people surrounded his truck. "People were ecstatic. Refugees, people who had fled fighting, none could imagine what could happen if we didn't get there. That gives me great pride."