By Sunil Verma
Pibor County, in South Sudan’s Jonglei State, is the site of recent conflict between members of the Murle and the Lou Nuer tribes. The violence has forced thousands of people to take refuge in surrounding bush areas. Here, UNICEF’s Sunil Verma reports from an assessment mission organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
PIBOR, South Sudan, 12 January 2012 – It was 7 a.m. when I boarded a UN MI8 helicopter with colleagues from the Human Rights and Child Protection section of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), as well as representatives from the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, the South Sudan Peace Commission, the World Food Programme, and media representatives from South Sudan Radio and Television.
As we approached Pibor, we could see some ‘tukuls’ (huts) had been burned down, surrounded by barren land with no sign of life.
We were welcomed at the airstrip by UNMISS Security Officer Ravi Nair, who gave us a security briefing.
Pibor saw an exodus of its residents when violence between the Lou Nuer tribe and Murle tribe erupted on 23 December, in the village of Kurwanya, in Likuangole Payam. The conflict escalated toward the end of the year.
“Everything is calm as of now,” he said, “but the situation is unpredictable.” Therefore, we needed to stay close together. We were all prepared to comply.
Together, we went to the County Commissioner’s Office. The route took us through a residential area, where soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) live with their families. We also saw many families living under trees and under makeshift shelters – people displaced by the conflict, we were told.
Displaced and abducted children
I went with Abraham, a UNICEF child protection officer, to meet unaccompanied and orphaned children in the area. The children, who ranged between one month and 14 years old, were sitting on the ground of a secure compound, with little to wear and hardly anything to eat. They were cared for by a group of women volunteers who had also been displaced by the violence.
One boy, Allan Joko, was around 10 years old. He spoke of his recent escape after being abducted from his home in Kongor Village about ten days ago. He was forced to travel with his captors and other abductees until two days ago, when the men were distracted. Allan slipped away and spent the night in the bush before walking to the nearest community. He has no idea where his family is.
“They never ill-treated me,” Allan said of his captors. “But I don’t know if my parents are still alive and if they will come looking for me.”
I also saw an 8-month-old baby whose parents were killed in an attack. He had been tied to his mother’s back, and when she was killed, she fell backwards, injuring the baby’s back and head. Medical attention has been difficult to obtain since the health centre, run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was ransacked.
'We need your help'
The entire town showed evidence of the disaster, and we only saw limited external assistance being provided to the affected.
Time was running out; the mission was permitted only three hours in Pibor. On our way back to the helicopter, we saw some people emerge from hiding, carrying their possessions and their children.
“It is not over yet, they are just two hours away by the river, carrying out their attacks, and can return any time,” said County Commissioner Joshua Konyi. “Juba needs to send reinforcements for our protection and food for the children.”
In response to the crisis, UNICEF is participating in assessments and reviews organized by the government. UNICEF is also deploying professionals from its nutrition, child protection and communications programmes, and from its water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme. UNICEF has also pre-positioned supplies for a humanitarian response, which will be initiated as soon as access to the affected population is established.
With partners, UNICEF has also begun a family reunification programme and registration activities designed to help return displaced and abducted children to their families. But there is much more work to be done.
“We need your help,” Mr. Konyi said.