Aid Workers Targeted in Battle Against Famine in South Sudan

(Bloomberg) -- Lying facedown, a rebel fighter jabbing a rifle barrel into the back of his head, the aid worker was sure his bid to save his fellow South Sudanese from famine was about to end in his own death.

The driver’s ordeal in the country’s north cost him his money, watch and mobile phone, but he was left alive, asking not to be identified for fear of retribution. Others weren’t so lucky: more than 100 aid workers have been killed by armed groups during South Sudan’s over four-year civil war. Now a fresh wave of attacks and intimidation by fighters from both sides is imperiling efforts to prevent the nation’s second famine since early 2017.

Aid Workers Targeted in Battle Against Famine in South Sudan

Violence makes the challenge of providing assistance “much worse,” the head of the local United Nations mission, David Shearer, said in an interview. Western embassies in a statement decried “an intensifying pattern of violence against” aid workers that could plunge 155,000 people into famine if operations are disrupted.

Mass hunger in the world’s youngest country is a product of the civil war between President Salva Kiir’s government and rebels that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives, uprooted people from much of the nation’s southern breadbasket and cut oil output, a vital source of revenue. Although a famine declared in northern counties in February 2017 was stopped, about two-thirds of the about 12 million population are again at risk of a shortfall in food supplies.

Compound Targeted

The numbers are stark. In April alone, four aid workers were killed and an International Committee of the Red Cross compound in Leer, an area recovering from famine, was targeted by gunfire, spurring staff evacuations and cutting supplies. In the southern region of Equatoria, at least 17 aid workers were freed after being held by armed groups for as long as three weeks.

“That obviously creates problems for women, children and other people who need medical care, food and other assistance,” the UN’s Shearer said by phone from the capital, Juba.

Another aid worker, who also asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of his group’s operations, described moving between army- and rebel-held territory as the riskiest part of a trip. Both sides see anyone crossing as a potential informer, said the worker, who was detained for four hours by government forces.

Personnel Harassed

A statement from foreign missions including the U.S. and European Union in South Sudan last week described challenges for aid workers that include “physical and legal access impediments, exorbitant fees and taxes, looting of supplies and harassment of personnel.” They didn’t say who was responsible.

Given widespread lawlessness and economic turmoil, it’s likely that the perpetrators are a mix of “formal institutions and criminal-minded individuals,” according to Edmund Yakani, executive director of the Juba-based Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, which collates crime figures. Combatants may also be controlling aid access to punish civilians in their opponent’s territory, he said.

Ateny Wek Ateny, Kiir’s spokesman, said authorities have taken measures to ensure aid groups are unimpeded. “Their convoys are protected and are left free, there are no more roadblocks from the government side,” he said, blaming insurgents for the attacks.

Giving Notice

A rebel spokesman, Lam Paul Gabriel, said relief organizations have ignored advice to give notice before sending aid workers to rebel-controlled areas. That’s resulted in “misunderstandings and endangering of lives of the workers and our displaced population,” he said in an April 30 statement.

The U.S. on Tuesday ordered a review of aid programs to South Sudan, accusing the government of fostering “one of Africa’s worst humanitarian disasters” and appearing unwilling to fulfill a recent cease-fire agreement.

The warring parties “remain far apart on the issues of governance and security” ahead of a third round of regionally backed peace talks, the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, Pierre Lacroix, told the Security Council this week.

Inside South Sudan, the second aid worker saw the hostile environment from both sides. After soldiers let him pass into a patch of opposition territory and he assessed its aid needs and returned home, he was surprised to receive a personal message from a rebel commander.

Who’d given him clearance to visit?, the insurgent demanded. Then came the warning: get our permission before you make any trip back -- or we’ll kill you.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.