Aid Workers Are Caught in Crossfire of Civil War in South Sudan

By Ilya Gridneff, Bloomberg

Photographer: Ilya Gridneff/Bloomberg Gabriel Duop Lam, The Military governor for SPLM/SPLA held teritories of Jonglei state (Photo: Ilya Gridneff/Bloomberg)

Photographer: Ilya Gridneff/Bloomberg
Gabriel Duop Lam, The Military governor for SPLM/SPLA held teritories of Jonglei state (Photo: Ilya Gridneff/Bloomberg)

Oct 1, 2014(Bloomberg) — When the United Nations World Food Programme’s head in South Sudan, Joyce Luma, landed at the airport in the capital after a visit behind rebel lines, one of her security officers told her to remove a necklace residents of the area had given her.

“It’s a Nuer gift and we’ve been in opposition territory,” the former Romanian soldier told her at Juba’s airport. “Take it off. Otherwise, problem.” Luma quickly removed the necklace.

Since fighting erupted in South Sudan in December, aid agencies that once planned to help develop the world’s newest nation find themselves under pressure from both the government and the rebels as they care for millions caught in a civil war fueled by ethnic hatred. The violence started after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, of fomenting a coup attempt, a charge he denies.

The conflict in the oil-producing nation, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, has displaced almost 2 million people and left 4 million needing assistance. As it has intensified, aid groups have been accused by both warring parties of supporting their adversaries. A UN helicopter was shot down last month, killing three Russian crewmen, and in January Kiir suggested at a press conference that the UN was attempting to run a “parallel government.”

A rebel soldier stands guard during a meeting with United Nations representatives in Jeich, province of Jonglei, South Sudan ( Photographer: Ilya Gridneff/Bloomberg

In July, WFP said government forces had arrested and beaten its workers and drivers. Aid agencies have said both sides in the conflict have looted UN warehouses filled with food and medical supplies. Non-governmental organizations have also reported abuses….

The National Assembly is considering legislation to tighten oversight of non-governmental organizations. It would set up a regulatory body made up of government representatives and appointees to provide guidelines for the operations of NGOs and handle the work-permit applications of their employees. It would carry legal sanctions if groups don’t comply.

“We believe the criminal penalties for non-compliance are harsh, that there is a lot of vagueness and room for interpretation in the act that will lead to misinterpretation and unnecessary stifling of activities of civil society and NGOs,” U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth said by phone from New York.

While East African mediators at peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and western governments call for the establishment of “relief corridors” to ensure the delivery of assistance, aid officials on the ground focus on face-to-face talks with the combatants to gain permission to reach the civilians caught in the middle of the war.

Food Drops

“Sure this is so-called ‘rebel-controlled’ territory, but we work with the humanitarian bodies of both sides,” Jonathan Veitch, head of Unicef in South Sudan, said during a trip this month to meet the insurgents in Jonglei state. “We have contacts in the government too and we tell them where exactly we’re going and what we’re going to do.”

Under the watchful eyes of a young soldier wrapped in a belt of 54-mm metal-piercing bullets and clutching his PKM machine gun, Veitch, WFP’s Luma and other officials met rebel commander Gabriel Duop Lam under a tree in the town of Jeich to win approval for UN planes and helicopters to make regular food drops.

“We have to come and talk to these people because they are the one’s running the show here,” Veitch said. “We don’t get involved in the politics.”

As his rebel soldiers gripped their Kalashnikovs, General Lam listened to the UN officials making their case for access to the areas he controls.

“We need to be able to make food drops here,” Luma said of Jeich, which has swollen with 14,000 people fleeing the violence. “It is vital we have access.”

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