Tens of thousands of people have been cut off from water, food and medical care in South Sudan's Jonglei State, after fleeing violence between rebels and the government in Pibor County. They now face escalated risks as the rainy season starts, but aid agencies say the government has denied humanitarian access to these populations.
According to the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an estimated 120,000 people have fled Pibor to areas that "will shortly be under a meter or more of flood water".
"The rainy season has already started, and we know from MSF's years of experience in Jonglei that without medical care, mortality rates will rise rapidly, with people dying of pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, malaria and diarrhoea," Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations, said in a statement on 14 June. "Furthermore, starting in June, the communities start to run out of food before the next harvest arrives."
For more than one year, Jonglei has been rocked by a series of battles between rebels, led by David Yau Yau, and the government's Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Yau Yau, a former theology student, has been leading the uprising for more than a year, calling for the overthrow of the government.
In early May, Yau Yau's fighters attacked and took control of the Pibor village of Boma. After heavy fighting, the SPLA retook the village a week later. Yau Yau fighters also attacked the town of Pibor, but were repulsed.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), most of Pibor's population - an estimated 148,000 people - have been affected by the violence, with many having been displaced multiple times.
Vikki Stienen, MSF's head of mission in South Sudan, said people have gone into hiding, most of them from the Murle ethnic group, which Yau Yau belongs to. Along with fears of continued fighting, the displaced were worried about being targeted by government security forces that remain in the area, he said.
"It's very difficult for the SPLA to differentiate between rebels and civilians," Stienen said. "So they sit out in these areas that are going to be swamped over."
The SPLA has repeatedly denied that it is targeting civilians.
Ismail Konyi, a Murle community leader, said the internally displaced persons (IDPs) would only return once the Yau Yau rebellion has ended. "There are some few people who come back, but they need food," he said.
"We are now talking with [Yau Yau] in the coming few days. We shall be able to meet him face to face."
Konyi said the delegation of Murle leaders would encourage Yau Yau to accept an amnesty offer from the government, which includes a promise not to prosecute any of the rebels.
No humanitarian access
But possible negotiations will take time, something Stienen said the displaced Murle do not have. They are at risk of malnutrition, exposure, diarrhoeal diseases and malaria, with no access to treatment, he said.
There are no accessible medical facilities. MSF’s hospital in Pibor - the main health care facility for tens of thousands of residents - was systematically looted at the beginning of May. Drug supplies were destroyed and equipment was vandalized. MSF also operates a small health centre in Gumuruk, south of Pibor town, but Stienen said the patients seen there are local.
The UN's Central Emergency Response Fund recently gave US$5.4 million to aid agencies to improve medical capacity and to operate two helicopters to assist the IDPs. But Stienen said the helicopters "are not very effective", to some degree because no one knows exactly where the displaced Murle are hiding, and humanitarian groups are not allowed access the area anyway.
Stienen said the SPLA had denied them permission to try to find the IDPs, citing security concerns.
A week after the SPLA retook Boma, the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan made a one-day trip to the town, during which they were also refused permission to look for missing civilians.
Malaak Ayuen, the SPLA's director of information, said the limited access resulted from security concerns for the humanitarian workers. Ayuen added that the aid groups needed to coordinate with SPLA officers on the ground to ensure their safety while attempting to find the displaced populations.
According to UNHCR, the crisis has forced thousands into neighbouring countries.
Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesperson, said in the first five months of 2013, more than 5,000 Jonglei refugees have crossed over into the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya - nearly the same number that arrived throughout 2012. Another than 2,700 refugees have arrived in Uganda since the beginning of 2013, while 2,178 arrived in Ethiopia between 7 May and 7 June.