South Sudan

Protection Situation Update: Leer County, Southern Unity (October – December 2015)

Situation Report
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A. Background

In the days following the last Protection Cluster update on southern Unity (23 October 20151), heavy fighting was reported in Leer County. Between 23 and 26 October, the Protection Cluster received reports of over 70 civilian casualties, and attacks on at least seven towns. The intensity of the conflict over the three days marked some of the worst violence in southern Unity since August 2015.

The weeks that followed these clashes saw a relative return to calm. The lull in fighting allowed much-needed assistance to reach Buaw, Koch Town, and Mayendit Town in late November, and enabled a return of humanitarian actors to Leer Town and Thonyor in early December.2 This was the first time most partners were able to resume a presence in Leer County since withdrawing in May. Community members in Thonyor have noted that there has been a marked reduction in violence since humanitarians have returned.

B. Protection Concerns

The Protection Cluster has received reports of over 200 people killed, over 50 women and girls raped, and 25 women abducted between late September and early December, bringing the estimated totals since the upsurge of violence in May 2015 to 1,200 killed, 1,430 raped and 1,630 abducted.3 During the attacks between 23 and 26 October, the Protection Cluster was particularly concerned about unconfirmed reports that 51 men and boys had been killed in a single incident outside Leer Town. While the exact circumstances surrounding these deaths remain unclear, it appears that the victims suffocated after being locked in a shipping container. It is also unclear whether their deaths were deliberate or an unintentional consequence of their captivity in closed quarters.

The overall protection environment has improved considerably since the violence in late October. While smaller attacks and cattle raids continue, large-scale hostilities between the two parties appear to have temporarily ceased in Leer and Mayendit counties. Nevertheless, many civilians continue to return to hiding places on islands and in the swamps at night, which indicates that they still do not feel safe in most major towns. Attacks by youth from Koch County are also a persistent threat, and have contributed to preventing humanitarians from being able to deliver assistance in northern Leer County.

With the humanitarian return to Leer Town and Thonyor, more cases of unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) have been identified. During the recent registrations in the first week of December, 55 new unaccompanied and separated children were registered in Thonyor, and 18 in Leer Town. In addition, dozens more children reported that they were living with elderly or disabled family members since their parents had fled to Panyijiar County or the Protection of Civilians (POC) sites. Given the high presence of armed elements across Leer County, the visible use of child soldiers, and the lack of access to education facilities and support networks, there is a credible risk that these children could be exposed to recruitment.

The elderly, the disabled, the sick, and pregnant woman have also been disproportionately affected by the violence. During focus group discussions in Leer Town and Thonyor in December, individuals with reduced mobility reported having difficulty both fleeing during attacks, and reaching places where assistance and protection services are available. The distance between service points and places of refuge can be up to a six-hour walk through 1.5 meter deep swamps, and temperatures can drop to 16°C at night, when many women choose to travel for security reasons. There have also been numerous reports of children drowning, either while fleeing attacks alone or with multiple young siblings who could not all be assisted by their mother to navigate the deep waters.

Sexual and gender-based violence also remains a significant concern, with widespread reports of rape of women and girls. However, without GBV partners in the area, it is difficult to assess the scale of these violations. On a positive note, women in focus group discussions in Thonyor and Adok expressed a high degree of community support for and acceptance of rape survivors. Survivors themselves indicated that they were able to continue to live with their families and friends, who understood that they were not to blame. Women also indicated that their trauma was subsiding, and that visits by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and other monitoring mechanisms were having a cathartic effect, as they felt they were being heard.