South Sudan: Thousands at Risk of Death as Medical Care is Cut Off


Many of the displaced people fled for their lives into the bush amid intensified fighting between South Sudan’s army (the SPLA) and the David Yau Yau armed militia group over the past month.

JONGLEI – An estimated 120,000 people have fled fighting in and around the main towns in Pibor county, in South Sudan’s Jonglei state, and are hiding in malaria-infested swamps without access to safe drinking water, food or medical care, said the international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on June 14. MSF now calls on the government of South Sudan to allow immediate humanitarian assistance to these areas to prevent the deaths of thousands of people.

Many of the displaced people fled for their lives into the bush amid intensified fighting between South Sudan’s army (the SPLA) and the David Yau Yau armed militia group over the past month. The heightened fighting has coincided with the destruction of medical facilities throughout the county, including the systematic looting of MSF’s hospital in Pibor town in late May. At the same time, the SPLA has refused to allow or facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance to the displaced population.

“Immediate action is required to avoid catastrophe,” says Dr Bart Janssens, MSF’s director of operations. “The area in Pibor county where the population is hiding will flood during the imminent rainy season. This will not be a place where people can remain alive. At the moment we are not able to contact the people hiding in the bush. We know from MSF’s years of experience in Jonglei that without medical care mortality rates will rise rapidly, with people dying of pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, malaria and diarrhoea. On top of this, starting in June, the communities will start to run out of food before the next harvest arrives.”

People have fled the main towns in Pibor county most likely out of fear of being confused with rebel groups or of being caught in the crossfire. The real or perceived lack of distinction between civilians of the Murle community and combatants will only increase the risk of disease and death for a population living with violence, displacement and fear, according to Dr Janssens. Nearly the entire Murle community in Pibor County has been cut off from any assistance.

After the only two hospitals in Pibor county – in Boma and Pibor – were looted and vandalised, there is no longer any healthcare available for the population, apart from a basic health post in Gumuruk run by MSF. From January to March this year, staff at MSF’s Pibor hospital treated 3,000 people and provided surgical care to more than 100 people suffering war-related injuries, including SPLA soldiers.

Repeated requests by MSF to the authorities to travel outside these towns to deliver assistance to the people hiding in the bush have been denied. Recently MSF was informed unambiguously by the SPLA commanders that the organisation would not be permitted to go to opposition-held territory to provide medical care, and that travel into the bush to conduct assessments of the needs of displaced people would not be permitted until such time as the government has ‘control’ of the area.

“MSF teams stand ready to resume and scale up medical activities for all people in need, regardless of the community they belong to, but South Sudan authorities must allow the unhindered provision of humanitarian assistance to the displaced,” says Dr Janssens. “All parties to the conflict must respect medical facilities, staff and patients. The urgency of this cannot be overstated. People are displaced in a zone that will shortly be under a metre or more of flood water.”