Protecting civilians in South Sudan in a time of war

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Internally Displaced People (IDPs) at a UN Protection of Civilians (POC) site in Bentiu, South Sudan. [International Organisation for Migration/Bannon]

Five years after winning a hard-fought battle for independence, South Sudan remains embroiled in a vicious civil war. Tragically, as is so often the case, the civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence and enduring years of hardship, writes David Derthick.

David Derthick served as Chief of Mission at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in South Sudan for the past three years, managing a large-scale humanitarian response in a country where more than 50% of the population requires assistance. 

Today, 200,000 South Sudanese are living in UN-protected sites, having fled to peacekeeping bases when fighting broke out in December 2013. Many have been there more than two years, and they represent only a fraction of the 1.7 million people displaced by war within the country.

Despite movements to implement a peace agreement and the formation of a transitional government, one thing is clear: the UN-protected sites will remain a lifesaving, last resort for South Sudanese in the years to come.

The UN peacekeeping mission and humanitarian workers in South Sudan have saved thousands of lives by sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs) on UN bases, now known as UN protection of civilian (PoC) sites. Learning lessons from Srebrenica, the PoC sites represent true peacekeeping in action, and a formidable example of peacekeepers and humanitarians working together to protect civilians.

We can do better.

This month, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation launched an independent report, analysing the PoC response. “If We Leave We Will Be Killed: Lessons Learned from South Sudan Protection of Civilian Sites 2013–2016” is not only an account of the PoC sites, from their formation to their challenges, but a critical self-evaluation, leading to the question, how do we best protect the most vulnerable?

Life in the sites is hard. Families, left with no other options, are practically imprisoned by the threats, from violence to starvation, that lie outside the bases. Humanitarians and the UN peacekeeping mission have struggled to provide protection, food, shelter, medical and other assistance in these crowded and confined sites.

The PoC site populations ballooned in the spring of 2014 and 2015 as fighting escalated between the government and opposition forces. Others have fled from severe hunger as the war forces them from their homes, interrupts planting cycles and leads to a near collapse of the economy.

Many fear leaving and others have nothing to go home to – their tukuls [mud huts] burned to the ground by armed forces or occupied by strangers. The  country is rife with local militias committed to spoiling the peace, and key towns have transformed into garrison towns.

South Sudan situation ‘heartbreaking’: UN official

Well over a million people have been forced from their homes, and many more face severe hunger, due to continued violence in South Sudan, according to a senior UN official.

When fighting came to Malakal town in January 2014, Mary, a 40-year old mother was among those who ran to the UN base. “Everything was looted and burned,” she said. “When South Sudan gained independence, I was excited to return from Khartoum, but now what I’ve built is gone.”

Above all, it is the voices of the IDPs themselves that we must listen to more. Living in a PoC site is optimal for no one, but it is something many families must do out of necessity.

The report’s author, Michael Arensen, tells the story of Apon, an elderly IDP who narrowly escaped a violent militia in April 2015. “The PoC is hot, but is better than death—if we leave we will be killed.” He has lived in a PoC site for over a year.

Accepting this reality, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to do better in the PoC sites. And, we can.

IDPs are not just numbers of beneficiaries. Each person has their own story and vision for the future. Speaking to IDPs in the PoC sites, one theme emerges: South Sudanese want peace. But, until then, we must take a critical look at our work, rise above politic animosities and focus on our duty to protect the most vulnerable.

As long as civilians are faced with this decision, the international community must strive to protect them.

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