With the soon-to-be-born nation of South Sudan facing numerous threats – from internal rebellions to violent clashes with northern Sudanese troops along their common border – it might not be surprising that aid workers are finding their area of operation shrinking rapidly. But one of the main reasons is not conflict, but harassment, aid workers say, by the South Sudanese forces themselves.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army – a former guerrilla group that makes up the ruling party of South Sudan – has begun to prey on United Nations agencies and aid groups attempting to access needy and conflict-affected civilians.
In some cases, aid workers say privately, the SPLA is stealing humanitarian vehicles and supplies. In other instances, it is simply forbidding aid groups from traveling to the remote areas where the army is conducting its campaigns against various anti-government militias.
UN officials and aid groups are reluctant to comment on the record about the grievous impacts of these campaigns, for fear of losing whatever access they currently have to vulnerable groups, many of whom have been caught up in the crossfire of the ongoing army-rebel violence.
But a recent report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Southern Sudan features shocking details about the harassment of aid groups in 2011 to date by the SPLA.
Noting that the “humanitarian access situation” in the south has “deteriorated sharply” this year, the OCHA report said that the most commonly reported problem in 2011 to date was the “commandeering of humanitarian vehicles and demands for use of humanitarian assets by (the) Sudan People’s Liberation Army.”
While the southern army’s appropriating of aid group supplies is a significant part of the current problem, the sheer fact that army-rebel fighting is occurring in areas where civilians and soldiers, families and rebels, live closely together, is another reason why harm to civilians and their properties has been such a prominent facet of the army campaigns against rebels across the oil-producing Greater Upper Nile region.
“The general point is, the operations by all the parties [to the violence] are done without any respect for human rights and humanitarian principles,” one Western official told me last week in the southern capital.
Since the outbreak of violence between rebel forces loyal to a war-time Khartoum-backed militia leader, Peter Gadet, and the SPLA in late April in oil-rich Unity state, independent international aid groups including Médécins san Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) have told the Monitor that a combination of conflict-related factors are inhibiting their work on malnutrition, water and sanitation, and other vital health and livelihoods activity.
"Since the end of April, it's been very difficult to go to these places [in Unity state] because of the fighting," MSF's Gautam Chatterjee told the Associated Press on Tuesday, citing the adverse impacts of these restrictions on MSF's ability to treat malnourished children and wounded civilians.
One issue aid groups are less willing to comment explicitly on is the ugly trend of the SPLA literally stealing aid groups supplies, including fuel, in order to support their own army campaigns at the expense of necessary humanitarian assistance.
However, the OCHA report, last updated in May, does provide details on the “threats and abuses targeting humanitarian staff, assets, and compounds” by southern security forces and local authorities, documenting a particularly terrible incident in April, when six humanitarian vehicles were commandeered by SPLA troops in Lakes state – a key rear base for army operations in the strategic border states – and five of the drivers were forced to drive into the western part of Unity state, where clashes then erupted between the SPLA and a rebel militia. Two drivers went missing for two weeks, and the OCHA report notes that subsequent reports indicate that one of the drivers was killed.