A man gestures at a market burned after an airstrike by the Sudanese air force in Rubkona, South Sudan, April 23.  CNS photo from Reuters

Almost a year after South Sudan gained its independence, the humanitarian situation in the small central African nation remains dire, with a swelling refugee population dealing with the threat of war and shortages of food and water, while relief workers face severe obstacles to help them.

“After 10 years of working on this issue, there is a real resignation on the part of the people in South Sudan that the violence they’ve been struggling with for so long is not going to come to an end anytime soon,” said Dan Griffin, the Sudan adviser for Catholic Relief Services.

Griffin visited the region last month, a few weeks after tensions erupted over a border dispute between Sudan and South Sudan, a nation of mostly Christians and animists that broke off from its mostly Muslim northern neighbor last July. The recent fighting resulted in 150,000 new Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees fleeing the war-torn borderland.

“I don’t like to be dejected, or sound pessimistic, but I want to paint a realistic picture and say what I saw, and not everything was hopeful,” Griffin told Our Sunday Visitor.

Fading hope

On June 7, the two countries broke off security talks after failing to agree on a demilitarized zone along their disputed border. Both countries are at odds on a string of other issues, including oil revenues and cross-accusations that the other country is supporting armed rebels in their respective territories.


Griffin, who is planning another upcoming trip to South Sudan, told OSV that the refugees and humanitarian workers are losing hope that the two countries’ leaders and the international community will find a resolution.

“There is a tremendous sense that it’s not going anywhere, and if it can’t be resolved by peaceful means, than it will be resolved by other means,” Griffin said, adding: “There is a sense that the talks will continue, but so will the violence, the bombings and the humanitarian concerns.”

Griffin said he hopes the international community’s main focus will be on the humanitarian situation on the ground.

“We’re looking at some very real concerns about the safety and security of the people we were celebrating with a year ago,” Griffin said. “I think that’s the real challenge, and it calls all of us to a commitment to solidarity and prayer for all the people of Sudan and South Sudan.”

“The people are tired of the fighting,” said Dr. James Eyul, the South Sudan country director for the Catholic Medical Mission Board, who told OSV that there is still a great need for economic integration and improvements in the country’s educational system and roads network.

Severe conditions

The CMMB is implementing projects related to AIDS prevention, care and treatment in South Sudan, as well as refugee health services, gender-based violence prevention and survivor counseling and child protection. The organization is entering its 100th anniversary, and plans to help celebrate South Sudan’s first year of independence.

The 150,000 Sudanese refugees are creating a multi-dimensioned crisis in South Sudan, where there is already severe malnutrition, shortages of food and water and a high infant mortality rate.

A U.N. report last month estimated that half of South Sudan’s population lacks sufficient food, and that two decades of armed conflict has severely suppressed agricultural development. A recent report by the African Development Bank Group indicates that one in three children in South Sudan suffers from malnutrition.

Conditions in South Sudan’s refugee camps are also rife with hunger, sexual abuse and forced recruitment of young men into rebel militias, according to a recent Amnesty International report.

Griffin witnessed the situation for himself in the Yida refugee camp, one of the largest in South Sudan.

“These people there were very emaciated. They’re living in dire conditions,” he said.

The rainy season presents immediate concerns for Catholic Relief Services, which has a little under 250 relief workers in South Sudan, as well as 250 workers in Sudan, that feed an approximate 500,000 people each month.

Griffin said CRS is working against the clock to move fuel, food, water, medical supplies and other materials to areas in South Sudan that could soon be cut off by the heavy rains.

“We’re in a huge crunch of time because much of this area will soon become inaccessible as soon as the rains really set in,” Griffin said. “The season puts a lot of vulnerable people out of reach for sometimes months at a time.”

An uncertain future

Securing transportation and viable roads have often been problematic for relief workers in the region. Across much of South Sudan, reconstruction has lagged and relief workers still have to navigate narrow dirt roads to reach the growing refugee settlements and their surrounding host communities. Some roads are simply tire tracks that fade into the forests.

“Delivering supplies from one place to another is a nightmare,” Eyul said.

“There is not much infrastructure to build on,” Griffin added.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has appealed to the international community for $145 million to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan. The U.S. State Department issued a June 6 statement indicating that the U.S. government has provided more than $34 million to support the emergency response to new Sudanese refugees in the region.

It is unlikely the South Sudanese government will soon be able to provide much assistance, since it lost 98 percent of its revenue after shutting down its oil production because of a transfer fee argument with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. Government services in health and other relief efforts have been cut back, shifting the burden to humanitarian groups.

“The people on the ground need to have access to humanitarian goods, no matter who provides them,” Griffin said. “The point is, ‘Are people getting the aid they need?’ That’s not happening.”

If the volatile political climate continues to curtail economic development, especially farming, the malnutrition and severe food shortages will likely continue.

“There will still be a tremendous amount of work to be done, suffering to undergo and decisions to be made,” Griffin said.

“Everything seems so uncertain. We wait to see whether the military engagement along the border continues or not, whether peace talks yield anything intangible or not, and whether the international community musters the resolve to come up with a process that the south would have faith in, and the north would participate in with good faith.”

Whatever the near future holds, Griffin said he hopes people will not forget South Sudan in the same manner that has happened in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, where 3.7 million people are still suffering without much recent attention from the international community.

Griffin asked: “Is that what will happen to South Sudan?”

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.