Attacks and threats force aid groups to leave South Sudanese county

A looted ICRC base in Leer, South Sudan, is seen in an archive photo from May 2015. (Credit: NC-ND / ICRC / Pawel Krzysiek)

Aid agencies are pulling out of a county in South Sudan’s Unity State due to recent attacks and increasing insecurity. The International Committee of the Red Cross announced the withdrawal of staff from Leer County on Monday. Reports today indicate that Doctors Without Borders also pulled out because of the worsening situation.

“Humanitarian access is currently a major challenge in these areas and all assistance is on hold in light of the insecurity,” said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N., in a recent statement.

Armed men stormed a Red Cross compound in Leer over the weekend. The humanitarian group says the men stole money, medical supplies, equipment and two vehicles. Staff were threatened, but there were no reported injuries.

“These incidents against humanitarian organizations are unacceptable. They hamper our efforts to respond to people in need. We are in contact with all relevant civilian and military authorities from both sides to try to find out exactly what happened and why,” said Jürg Eglin, head of the Red Cross in South Sudan.

The departure comes just ahead of planned food distribution by the Red Cross. Instability and displacements caused by the fighting across the country have contributed to higher rates of acute malnutrition and overall food insecurity. The crisis and inadequate rains prompted famine warnings earlier this year by aid groups. Concerns persist as humanitarian groups struggle to deliver needed food aid.

“In many parts of South Sudan the rainy season is hampering access by road and regular fixed-wing flights, so FAO has been using the only means possible to reach these communities – helicopters,” explained Abdoul Karim Bah, emergency response manager for South Sudan, to the press. “This means we can also more easily take advantage of small windows of opportunity to distribute aid – so as the ceasefire continues to hold, we‘ve been able to move quickly to reach areas that haven’t been reached since the start of the conflict.”

A peace deal to stop fighting between rebel forces and government troops was signed in the middle of August. It was meant to start the process of ending the conflict that started in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused former vice president Riek Machar of launching a coup bid. The peace deal was delayed over concerns by Kiir and there is little evidence it is being upheld. Both sides accuse the other of violating the agreement.

Meanwhile, Kiir unilaterally increased the number of states in the country from 10 to 28 on Friday. Rebels say the move is a bid to have more states supportive of the leader, thus undermining the power sharing plan struck back in August. The original formula allowed the rebels to hold a share of seats in national and state governments. Changes to the states throws that into disorder.

The evacuation is the second time this year that violence forced the Red Cross out of Leer. The group left in May due to insecurity and did not re-establish a permanent outpost until September. It may take just as long for the group to completely return to the county – too long when a solution to the crisis may not actualize.

“Our staff are trying to provide assistance to people who are in desperate need. Our main concern now is for the vulnerable population who are left with no access to humanitarian aid and who are at risk of being caught up in the fighting,” said Eglin.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.