Escalating violence in South Sudan has resulted in new estimates that there could be as many as 10,000 fatalities in the conflict so far, a huge increase from the previous estimates of 1,000 from the UN.
Fighting that began on 15 December in the capital city of Juba, following an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir's former deputy Riek Machar, has since spread throughout the country, fracturing it along ethnic lines. The two political leaders belong to different tribes, Dinka and Nuer, and the violence is largely ethnic.
This latest crisis is the culmination of years of instability. Significant political unrest has plagued the country ever since its secession from Sudan in 2011 following two bloody civil wars, and dissatisfaction with political leadership has resulted in an incredibly volatile state.
David Thomson, Director of policy and programmes for World Vision, which currently has teams on the ground in South Sudan, spoke to Christian Today about the ongoing conflict and hopes for the future stability of South Sudan.
CT: What are World Vision's priorities in South Sudan at the moment?
DT: World Vision has been working in South Sudan for the last 25 years, but in the current situation where the conflict has escalated we're seeing vulnerability particularly for children, so our focus is around the wellbeing of children and their protection.
Right now, in terms of populations and people that are displaced, we're seeing that nearly 400,000 people are being displaced from their homes. When people have to move, children often lose their parents - they're either killed or they're separated - and it's then that they're actually much more vulnerable than they already were. They're at higher risk of violence and sexual exploitation.
We're also aware that people's health situations will deteriorate further – it's harvest time coming in South Sudan, and they won't be able to harvest and so they will need access to food as well.
CT: How about the long-term vision?
DT: Right now we have to respond to the emergency. We work in seven of the ten states in South Sudan and some of them are more peaceful so we're able to continue some of the longer term work, which is largely focussed on health and nutrition around education. But in the places that are most affected it's about responding, it's about trying to get access to them, and it's also about politically calling upon Kiir and Machar to actually agree to a ceasefire and take the peace talks further, because while the fighting continues, the situation will only get worse.
CT: What are the main challenges your teams are facing at the moment?
DT: The fluidity of the conflict means that the movement of people is making it difficult for us, but the ongoing violence also makes it very difficult to have our staff work with the security challenges that exist and the ongoing changing situation. In order to give a timely humanitarian response to people in the right places we need unhindered access, and we need to know our staff are safe and secure.
CT: How are churches in South Sudan responding to the crisis?
DT: Many churches have tried to create safe havens and people have fled to church compounds. I spoke with our team recently and they talked to a lady called Flora who's in a church compound in Juba. It's the same church that the President goes to pray every week, and she's trying to get shelter there. She's expecting her first baby, she's paralysed in both her legs and she has to drink water from the Nile – she knows it's unclean but it's the only thing she has to drink. When asked why she had fled, she said she lived in a grass-thatched hut and the walls weren't strong enough to protect her from the bullets. So people are going to churches, to places where they're safe. Similarly, there are over 60,000 people trying to get haven in the UN compounds as well. Churches are providing a safe place and they are also being a good partner to many organisations and providing assistance to them.
CT: Do you see an end to the violence in the near future?
DT: It's so fluid, there could be a ceasefire tomorrow, and that would make a huge difference. The good news from the talks in Addis is that on both sides they've dropped some of the conditions they were demanding, which were almost impossible to meet, so talks are a possibility. But there's little information for people so even if a ceasefire happens there's still the rumour mill, people will flee anywhere and keep on moving. We've just seen more than 200 people die on the River Nile, trying to cross from Malakal. People are paying or borrowing to make a journey that's clearly not safe. They're taking high risks to do it, taking loans to pay for it at extortionate rates, and then they're losing their lives in the process. We pray that it will get better, but it's going in the wrong direction right now and it could destabilise the region.
CT: Do you agree that the only resolution to the conflict must be a political one?
DT: We can't see a resolution through ongoing conflict, it needs to be political, but at the same time the humanitarian situation has to be responded to. It's a country that was already one of the poorest in the world - with 50 per cent living below the poverty line - and the situation is only getting worse. We've heard also that people are beginning to flee the country, so they're in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and from one of the places in Kenya we're told that of the recent arrivals 80 per cent were children, and some of them were unaccompanied.
Right now we need a ceasefire and we need peace to come. Some of the work we have done in the past is around peace and reconciliation, and there'll need to be ongoing work on reconciliation. Young people in South Sudan need to have some incentive for peace; there needs to be a benefit of peace for them, and they need to believe that there's a future for them that they can influence. That they can be empowered to choose who leads them and how they're led.
CT: How is the failure of the independence promises contributing to the conflict?
DT: I think it's very hard for the people because there was hope in that. Actually, Flora's family returned back in 2009 from being up in the North in Khartoum; they returned because they had a hope for a new and a better future for their country, and that's been dashed. When we think back to 2005 and the peace agreement, we raised some alarm bells that some of the border definitions weren't fully clear, and how actually the oil revenues would be controlled and used were not clear – they were two fairly big areas – but at the time it was felt better to take a step than no steps. So for people it's really a fear of the two stronger ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, battling it out.
CT: What can the international community be doing to help?
DT: One of the ways is to give; money is needed for these kinds of responses, and we can't provide water or food without funds. Another key area is to pray for peace; we ask people to pray, and we'd look for people who have the ability to put pressure on the leaders to push all parties to work towards peace. To look to cease the hostilities, and in some ways to stop long enough to listen to the cries of the children, because it's the children who are suffering most in this situation. They need to be protected and safeguarded and we need to be able to get access to people to do that.
The British government are providing a strong response to this; they are encouraging the peace talks, but we've also received a UK aid grant that's going to help 33,000 people with water and sanitation. It will provide safe drinking water and safe spaces, particularly to protect girls and women, so they're putting money forward as well as political weight which is a good thing.
To donate to World Vision's work with vulnerable people in South Sudan and across the world, go to www.worldvision.org.uk