Warring fighters in South Sudan have looted hospitals and murdered patients in their beds, cutting life-saving healthcare to hundreds of thousands of people, Doctors Without Borders said Wednesday.
Warning of an “alarming pattern of shootings and attacks on patients” and health facilities, Doctors without Borders (MSF, Medicines sans Frontiers) said their crucial work was being strangled by a “climate of utter disrespect and fear.”
Thousands have been killed and almost 900,000 forced from their homes by over two months of battles between rebel and government forces, backed by troops from neighboring Uganda.
Medical care has “come under fire, with patients shot in their beds, wards burned to the ground, medical equipment looted, and, in one case, an entire hospital destroyed,” MSF said in a statement.
“Assaults on medical facilities and patients are part of a broader backdrop of brutal attacks on towns, markets and public facilities,” said Raphael Gorgeu, MSF head of mission in the war-torn nation.
“These attacks show a complete lack of respect for medical care and deprive the most vulnerable of life-saving assistance just when they need it most.”
Atrocities have been committed by both sides, whether in the initial clashes that marked the start of the conflict in the capital Juba on December 15, or during repeated battles for strategic towns across the impoverished but oil-rich nation.
Tens of thousands are still crammed into UN bases in fear of revenge attacks by either President Salva Kiir’s Dinka people or the Nuer tribe of his former vice-president turned arch-rival Riek Machar.
Recent heavy battles between rebels and government troops have been over the key northern oil hub of Malakal, which has exchanged hands several times between rebels and government.
“Malakal is deserted, with houses burned throughout and countless dead bodies strewn in the streets… I can find no words to describe the brutality,” said Carlos Francisco, MSF’s emergency coordinator in the town.
In the flashpoint region of Leer in the south of the key oil producing Unity state, hometown of rebel chief Machar, MSF’s hospital was razed to the ground.
MSF’s 240 South Sudanese staff fled into the surrounding bush a month ago when the hospital was ransacked, carrying several dozen of the most sick patients with them.
“They are struggling to treat them with dwindling supplies,” MSF project coordinator Sarah Maynard said, describing how they are now fearing they will have to carry out amputations because of infected wounds, with staff forced to reuse dressings.
“People are becoming ill from drinking dirty river water and from eating water lilies for lack of food,” she added.
Fighters even torched and looted the section of the hospital used to feed severely malnourished children.
“The destruction from fire was unbelievable… the fridges where we used to keep the vaccines cold were just melted white blobs,” Maynard said, after briefly returning to Leer to assess the damage.
“Now nearly 300,000 people have no access to a hospital, nor any general healthcare… there’s nothing left in the hospital that is useable.”
Kenya’s top security body warned on Tuesday that violence in South Sudan is worsening, condemning “escalating military activities… in total disregard and violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement” that Nairobi helped broker last month.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Juba Wednesday in the latest effort by neighboring nations to try to implement the ceasefire and bring the two sides back to negotiations.
It follows a visit Tuesday by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom to Juba to push for talks to resume in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.