The top United Nations humanitarian official in South Sudan is sounding the alarm about the dire situation in the country, warning that the world’s youngest nation could collapse by year’s end if urgent action is not taken to help see its people through the current crisis.
“People are crying out for help,” Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer said in an interview with the UN News Centre. “We’re at a really desperate moment in South Sudan.”
Less than three years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, the fledgling nation has been wracked by a conflict that has left thousands dead and some 870,000 displaced since it first erupted in mid-December. Some 77,000 people have sought protection at UN bases around the country.
“When this crisis erupted in mid-December, I think many of us thought this would be a temporary situation – where people would be inside the United Nations bases. But now we’re into the third month and it’s very clear to us that people can’t go home. They’re too scared. They have nowhere to go,” said Mr. Lanzer.
A veteran UN official with development, humanitarian and peacekeeping experience in Timor-Leste, Central African Republic and Sudan, among others, Mr. Lanzer stressed the need for the peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to bear fruit.
“We need a ceasefire that works, that works for civilians on the ground; that enables them to move, to go back to their homes, to look after their livestock, to plant and to cultivate,” he said.
If this happens, it will go a long way to enabling the South Sudanese to get through the current crisis, he added. “But if they can’t move, if they cannot cultivate, I really fear that by the end of the year, South Sudan will have collapsed and gone into an even more desperate situation.”
There are fears that tens of thousands will be newly displaced amid fresh fighting in Upper Nile state, following heavy clashes and reports of people being killed recently in churches and hospitals in the state capital, Malakal.
Mr. Lanzer, who visited Malakal last week, described it as a ghost town. “The drive from the airport into town takes about 20 minutes. We didn’t see a single bicycle, pedestrian, car, not a dog, not a chicken, nothing.”
South Sudan: Bringing Aid to Malakal (11 February ’14). Credit: UNHCR
As he and his team got closer to the centre of the town, he said, it became very clear that many atrocities had been committed there, as they saw the remains of people scattered along the roads.
“Particularly troubling was when we’d reached the hospital and saw vultures flying overhead. And we went into the hospital and saw things that really beggar belief. The types of crimes that were committed there need to be investigated and our teams of course will be looking into these things and reporting on it.”
As horrible as the situation was in Malakal, Mr. Lanzer said what he saw there was not unique. “I wish I could say that the situation in Malakal is the worst. but I think it’s very descriptive of the situation in other parts of the country. So many towns that I have visited in Upper Nile state, in Unity state, in Jonglei, have been destroyed, are deserted.
“Having worked in Darfur, one of the things that I never, ever thought I would see is people fleeing into Darfur. Well now we’re seeing that. I mean that’s how bad the situation has got on the ground in South Sudan.”
Mr. Lanzer, who is meeting with donors and others in New York and Washington D.C. this week, said the situation in South Sudan is a call to action for the international community to stand with the world’s youngest nation and not let it fail.
“We do have the chance to stand with the people, to work with people during this time and to help them get through it. But we also have the chance of standing by and watching a situation unfold where there will be unprecedented loss of life,” he stated.
“All of us now, whether we’re a party to the conflict, whether we’re a donor with resources or whether we’re a UN agency or an NGO, we need to step up and really stand with the people of South Sudan in their greatest hour of need.”