South Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis in the World's Newest Country

This post is part of our special coverage South Sudan Referendum 2011 and Refugees.

Less than a year since declaring its independence in July 2011 to become the world's newest country, South Sudan continues to face a humanitarian crisis. Civil war between the African South Sudan and the Arabic North, Sudan, had already claimed around 1.5 million lives by that time, and international organizations warn that the troubles are far from over.

At the beginning of this year, for example, South Sudan declared its Jonglei State a disaster zone after as many as 100,000 people were forced to flee from fighting between the rival Lou Nuer and Murle tribes. The United Nations has already launched an emergency operation to supply humanitarian assistance to around 60,000 people.

The Borgen Project Blog provides a comprehensive background to the latest tribal trouble:

It is reported that these clashes began as cattle raids, but have spiraled out of control. Conflicts such as these “cattle vendettas,” as well as other clashes between rival groups, are common in South Sudan. The United Nations says that about 350,000 people were displaced as a result of this kind of violence last year.

Intercommunal violence like this poses a major challenge for the fledgling government in South Sudan. Being a newly independent state, the country is faced with the task of establishing an effective system of governance. Furthermore, South Sudan is one of the world's poorest regions. It has hardly any roads, schools, medical clinics, or other vital infrastructure. The lack of economic development within the country only fuels instability and leads to a higher rate of clashes like these recent ones in Jonglei.

Displaced population caused by cattle raiding in Pibor county, Jonglei State © Liang Zi/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Displaced population caused by cattle raiding in Pibor county, Jonglei State © Liang Zi/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Catholic Relief Services, an international relief organization operating in South Sudan, concurs:

The troubled state of Jonglei has a long history of ethnic tensions, cattle raiding, kidnappings and sometimes violent competition for scarce resources.The most recent attacks were led by the self-proclaimed Nuer White Army, a group of as many as 6,000 armed youth from the Lou Nuer ethnic group. Spokespersons of the armed group stated that their intention was to reclaim stolen cattle and 180 kidnapped children that they say raiders from a neighboring ethnic group, the Murle, had taken from their communities.


“After nearly four decades of working in Sudan and South Sudan, CRS recognises that sustainable development and peace are tightly interwoven,” Boyd says. “To contribute to a lasting improvement in the level of basic services and economic opportunities available to people throughout South Sudan, it is imperative to support communities to find meaningful, concrete ways to resolve their differences and put an end to destructive conflict. Simultaneously, tensions between groups are often exacerbated by the scarcity of basic services like access to water, schools, or health clinics. Development and peace have to happen at the same time.”

Another international organization, Oxfam, also links averting conflict with the provision of essential goods and services:

As South Sudan emerges as a new nation, there may be no more pressing issue for its people, and perhaps for the stability of the nation as a whole, than the investments it makes in its agricultural sector and long term food security.


The international community has invested a tremendous amount in shepherding Sudan and South Sudan through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and independence. Now, however, the work just begins and donors must double down on their commitments to help South Sudan overcome the challenges of insecurity, displacement, and cyclical droughts and floods.

As it makes this transition to a nation at peace with itself and with its neighbor, South Sudan will require a comprehensive balance of predictable, multi-year development assistance alongside continued support for humanitarian needs focused on strengthening the GoSS emergency preparedness and disaster management capacity

It will also be important to invest in programs of Disaster Risk Reduction and resilience that enable communities to prevent, mitigate and recover quickly from humanitarian crises. Donors should also look to emergent South Sudanese civil society as an important actor in providing humanitarian and development assistance that complements the programs of the state and private sector.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) also provides an account from the ground:

“Thousands of people have fled for their lives in Lekongole and Pibor in the last week and are now hiding in the bush, frightened for their lives,” said Parthesarathy Rajendran, MSF head of mission in South Sudan. “They fled in haste and have no food or water, some of them doubtless carrying wounds or injuries, and now they are on their own, hiding, beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance.”

The village of Lekongole has been raised to the ground and an MSF team that assessed the situation in Pibor on 28th December described it as a ghost town, virtually everyone having fled into the surrounding country. While the people are hidden in the bush, we cannot reach them to clean and dress wounds, treat diseases and provide general primary healthcare. The longer they are in the bush, the more serious it will become for people who are injured or sick.


“There are several crisis situations evolving in different parts of South Sudan right now,” adds Rajendran. “Our medical teams are also currently responding to the crisis of refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring Sudan. These are staunch reminders that despite independence, acute emergencies are still all too present in South Sudan and the capacity for emergency humanitarian response remains an absolute priority.”

Bill's Space comments:

It only seems a few months ago that we saw the creation of a new nation in Africa, with the arrival of Southern Sudan out of Sudan. But it seems that a new name and new existence does little to change the way things are in that part of the world. I’m seeing reports of more than 3000 people killed in South Sudan last week in ethnic violence, that forced thousands of others to flee – although ‘fleeing’ seems to what the people in part of the original Sudan have been doing for decades – these kind of mass killings or massacres seem able to be perpetuated despite the presence of United Nations personnel, South Sudanese army,. etc With the report that this is the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the new nation since it split from Sudan in July, seems to be the indication that such violence is an ongoing activity […].

Others are also cynical towards the international community's stated aim of assisting South Sudan, with The Impudent Observer making a satirical post, Death in Sudan, Who Cares?, ridiculing the US in particular:

This intrepid reporter asked prominent American political leaders for a reaction to this massacre of the innocent.

George Bush: ”The key thing is whether there are WMD in South Sudan that pose a threat to the security of America.”

Michele Bachmann: ”South Sudan? Is that near New Orleans?”

Herman Cain: ”I wonder if anyone there would be interested in a fabulous pizza deal.”

Ron Santorum: ”I urge those unfortunate people to pray to God”

Mitt Romney: ”America sends its condolences to all who are persecuted. I will inform Mormon headquarters so they can send some missionaries.”

Newt Gingrich: ”If South Sudan leaders would contact me, I have some interesting ideas that might help them and my organization offers a beginning of year discount.”

Barack Obama: ”We are leaving troubled areas, not going in.”

For more updates on South Sudan, Washington-based PannLuel Wël is providing updates on a blog, PannLuel Wël: South Sudanese Blogger, as well as on Twitter at @PaanLuelWel2011.

This post is part of our special coverage South Sudan Referendum 2011 and Refugees.

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