By Katy Migiro, Thomson Reuters Foundation
February 21, 2014 [NAIROBI] – Fleeing civilians saw hospital patients raped in South Sudan’s main oil-producing region amid renewed fighting this week, while those seeking sanctuary at a U.N. base butchered each other with machetes, aid agencies said.
Rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar on Tuesday attacked the town of Malakal, which lies on the fringes of Upper Nile state’s oil fields, triggering the heaviest outburst of fighting since the government and rebels signed a Jan. 23 ceasefire deal.
There is mounting international pressure on the warring factions to return to negotiations, although Western diplomats privately question the commitment of either side to end the conflict as each has blamed the other for ceasefire violations.
On Tuesday, civilians fled to the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal when fighting broke out in violation of the ceasefire. Around 30,000 people are now crowded inside the base, according to International Medical Corps (IMC), which has treated more than 100 injured people there.
As tensions rose, fighting broke out among the displaced within the camp.
“Fourteen deaths have now been reported, at least six of which were reportedly machete wounds from fighting inside the base,” Josh Harris, a spokesman for IMC, said in an email.
Another medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also working in the camp, said it treated patients with “gunshot wounds from the clashes in town as well as injuries as a result of inter-communal fighting in the camp”.
“Displaced people reported to our teams cases of the killing and rape of patients and relatives in the only functional hospital in town,” MSF said in a statement on Thursday.
“MSF fears that the escalating levels of violence are threatening the security of the population even in the place where most of the displaced people are currently seeking refuge, the UNMISS compound.”
Fighting in the hospital forced MSF to pull out. It has since been looted, the charity said.
“We are worried about the upcoming rainy season and the risk of outbreaks in a context where medical services have been widely disrupted,” said Llanos Ortiz, MSF deputy emergency desk manager.
“This paints a grim picture for a vulnerable population with a scarcity of resources.”
The rainy season begins in April. This will make 60 percent of the country’s roads impassable until October, the U.N. said.
Diseases like malaria – which is already a problem for displaced people sleeping out in the bush or in swamps – also peak during this season.
“It is mostly women and children [who are displaced] and malaria is taking a big toll, as are intestinal diseases and respiratory infections,” said Wouter Schaap, CARE’s assistant country director.
“These people need mosquito nets, they need food.”
The U.N. says 716,100 people are displaced inside South Sudan and another 156,800 have fled to nearby countries. Less than half of the internally displaced have received any assistance.
Thousands of people have been killed since fighting began two months ago, triggered by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Machar, his former deputy whom he sacked in July.