100,000 fearful civilians trapped in South Sudan town
Civilians seeking safety from raids flee to Yei, joining tens of thousands there with no means to leave as military operations continue.
YEI, South Sudan – Ongoing military operations in a previously peaceful part of South Sudan have trapped an estimated 100,000 people in a town that is facing a humanitarian crisis, raising concerns for civilians' safety.
More than 30,000 people fled into Yei, in the country's far south, following deadly attacks and looting in nearby villages during September, church leaders in the town told a high-level mission led by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR says it is "increasingly concerned" over the fate of these people trapped in the town in Central Equatoria State, about 150 kilometres south-west of Juba.
"They are slaughtering innocent people like animals."
They joined thousands of others who fled fighting in July. The displaced communities are now living alongside Yei's population of 60,000. These civilians have no means to leave and face increasing acts of violence against them.
"They are slaughtering innocent people like animals," said one young woman too frightened of reprisals to give her name. "This is brutal. I don't understand why we have suddenly become a target. I thought wars were fought between armies. We are citizens of this country. I feel hopeless. I can't do much but pray for peace."
Several civilians have been hacked to death, including women, children, and babies, witnesses told the UNHCR-led multi-agency mission on September 27. Uniformed men were said to have detained many young men accused of supporting forces opposed to the government. Many others were assaulted and their property looted or burnt.
“We can’t leave this place, not even to go to our farms."
Until recently, Yei had largely escaped the effects of the primary conflict in South Sudan. But political tensions had begun emerging late in 2015, and security deteriorated rapidly after a new conflict broke out in Juba, South Sudan's capital, in July.
“We can’t leave this place, not even to go to our farms," one 50-year-old farmer told UNHCR. "There are military personnel and checkpoints all around the town. Our harvest is rotting. We need to start planting now, otherwise we won’t have any food next year."
Displaced people need food, household items and medicines, and children need to be able to go to school, UNHCR said. Food prices are skyrocketing, local hospitals are functioning at reduced capacity, and there are indications of increasing sexual and gender-based violence, and unaccompanied and separated children.
"UNHCR condemns these acts that have caused death, fear and suffering of innocent people," said Ahmed Warsame, UNHCR’s Representative in South Sudan. "We urge the Government of South Sudan to protect the lives of civilian populations and ensure their freedom of movement and access to safety. We highly commend the local church for providing shelter and protection to people in need."
Refugees as well as South Sudanese citizens have become caught up in the conflict. Armed groups have repeatedly entered a refugee settlement called Lasu, firing shots, assaulting refugees, and looting and destroying humanitarian goods and property, refugee leaders told the UNHCR mission to Yei. A young Congolese refugee was killed, leaving two children orphaned.
"It is unacceptable that a place conceived to provide sanctuary to people fleeing war and persecution has now become the target of senseless acts of violence." Warsame said. "We urge all the parties to respect the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum and refugee settlements."
David Lokonga Moses, the Governor of Yei River State, assured the multi-agency delegation in a meeting that the government and local authorities were making major efforts to restore peace and security for the population in Yei.
In Juba, humanitarian partners are responding to the situation by readying food supplies, non-food items including shelter and emergency household items, and medicines.
Deteriorating security in South Sudan has forced more than 200,000 people to flee the country since July 8, bringing the number of South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries to over 1 million.
In South Sudan, more than 1.61 million people are internally displaced and another 261,000 are refugees from Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic.