Nomi Ayour Malek had travelled to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, to buy clothes as Christmas presents for her children when fighting broke out last year. As the violence spread, she became trapped by the sudden onset of civil war in the world’s newest nation.
As a member of the country’s dominant Dinka ethnic group, she did not dare risk travelling back to her home in Jonglei province, north of Juba, where rebels from the Nuer ethnic community repeatedly attacked and took over the state capital, Bor.
“I don’t care for these two tribes,” says Ms Ayour, who is still in Juba, living in a camp for 2,600 displaced people, set up in the grounds of a school. The shelters consist of tarpaulin stretched over sticks. Women make up the majority of the camp’s inhabitants; they spend their days washing clothes in plastic vats, cooking, selling charcoal or playing cards in the shade of trees. “We are all the children of South Sudan; let them come together and settle their differences as a family,” says Ms Ayour, mindful that South Sudan spent decades fighting for independence from the Khartoum government, which it won only three years ago. “If there’s peace I’ll go back [home].”
The extent and severity of the fighting, however, as well as fear of ethnic killings, has made it unlikely that Ms Ayour will be able to return home anytime soon. She is just one of nearly 2m people, some 17 per cent of South Sudan’s population, who have been displaced by the violence.
While the civil war was triggered by a political fallout between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his sacked deputy, Riek Machar, a Nuer, it has created a humanitarian catastrophe on the ground. Protracted peace talks have so far failed to deliver a lasting deal and heavy fighting could resume with the onset of the dry season early next year.
The International Rescue Committee, the humanitarian organisation partnering the Financial Times in this year’s seasonal appeal, has been at the forefront of efforts to bring help to those in South Sudan who need it most. It has got supplies through to tens of thousands of people who sought refuge by wading into swamplands with only water lilies for food; and monitors shelter and medical care for the thousands of vulnerable people in camps such as the one where Ms Ayour lives.
“IRC was one of the earliest, fastest and biggest organisations to reach deep-field locations where need was the highest; there is no question they saved tens of thousands of lives,” says Toby Lanzer, the UN’s chief humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan.
“At Christmas last year I called [IRC president] David Miliband and said: ‘I need you and I need you here now, big and fast’,” recalls Mr Lanzer, who says IRC is one of the top 20 most effective organisations among 200 currently working in the country.
Although it has been active in South Sudan for 25 years, IRC tripled in size this year in its effort to respond to the war. It now has more than 1,000 local staff and a budget of $28m, up $10m on last year. In the 12 months since the civil war started, the IRC, expert in working with displaced and vulnerable people, has reached 900,000 people.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to scale up as much as we did,” says Wendy Taeuber, IRC’s country director for South Sudan. She says IRC reached people in difficult, remote areas by canoe, with many of its staff later emerging undernourished and skinny. Famine, she cautions, “is a much more real possibility in the coming months” because people have sold cows, lost their homes and harvested only a meagre crop.
IRC protection officers such as Paul, an ethnic Nuer who did not want to give his full name, search out vulnerable people who need extra assistance. He was recruited from a camp for displaced people at one of many UN bases where he, like 100,000 others, sought refuge.
“I move house to house to find children who have no company, pregnant women, lactating mothers, old people, the disabled — four of us make about 30 referrals a week,” he says.
The ethnic dimension to the war is a constant source of tension and violence. An IRC report published in November says that both government and opposition forces “have committed extraordinary abuses of civilians, often deliberately targeted along ethnic lines, including mass killings, disappearances, torture and gender-based violence such as rape.”
Even in camps where the residents are drawn from ethnic groups that tend to support the government, including the one where Ms Ayour lives, which combines Dinka, Murle and Anyuak people, each group wants free food to be distributed by ethnicity and washing facilities to be provided by ethnicity. To avoid riots, aid agencies have capitulated and now distribute food via ethnic line-ups, but have so far refused to separate out latrines and shower areas other than by gender.
The tensions and controversies make it an extremely dangerous environment for humanitarian groups; aid workers in South Sudan were the third most attacked in the world this year after Afghanistan and Syria, with 35 killed. IRC has staged multiple evacuations of staff from sites across the country. In April, two IRC workers were killed at a health clinic in a UN base that was protecting thousands of South Sudanese.
“[Attackers] stormed in and shot everyone in sight; we lost two staff; so it’s been a really difficult and tragic year,” says Ms Taeuber, who says IRC has suffered many other instances of direct attack on staff this year.
“We hope that donors will continue to support the response,” says Ms Taeuber. “As the conflict continues there’s distrust on all sides; we have to serve people in need wherever they are found.”