By Linda Bordoni
As South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his political rival Riek Machar attempt to engage in a new round of peace talks, a UN official was received in the Vatican where he was able to give an update on the sprialling humanitarian crisis.
The talks, taking place in Khartoum, aim to end South Sudan’s four-and-a-half year brutal civil war.
The war, now in its 5th year, has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.
Violence and insecurity have forcibly displaced 1 in 3 of the country’s population - either within South Sudan or across borders. Inside the country, 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees launched a funding appeal at the beginning of the year to support refugees fleeing the worsening humanitarian situation in South Sudan and for people in need in the country during 2018.
But the money received is far less than what is needed.
Arnauld Akodjenou, UNHCR Regional Refugee Coordinator and Special Advisor for the South Sudan Refugee Situation, told Vatican News that the human cost of the conflict has reached epic proportions and – if nothing is done - risks becoming the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa right now:
Akodjenou pointed out that South Sudan is the youngest member state of the international community having gained independence less than 7 years ago.
“Since then there have only been two years of stability and peace” he said, adding that after violence flared between rival political factions, fighting and insecurity have pushed millions across the borders into neighbouring countries.
A country which is bleeding
“At this point, Akodjenou said, no one can say when this outflow, this ‘bleeding’ of the population will end.”
In the meantime, he explained, more than 1 million of refugees are living in the northern part of Uganda; more than 800,000 in Sudan; 400,000 in Ethiopia; 120,000 in Kenya; close to 100,00 in the north of the DRC and close to 3,000 in the Central African Republic.
“Despite all the problems the last two countries have been going through, their borders remain open, they continue to receive refugees” he said.
But, he noted “We are talking about people living in the most remote areas of those countries” where there are hardly any reception centers.
He said that so far, most of them are supported by the national governments but “that cannot last”.
“They are living in very difficult conditions, far from international standards; they have problems of food, shelter, water, sanitation, healthcare and education”.
Who are the refugees?
“More than 85% are women and children” Akodjenou said and “63% are children”.
That means, he continued, that as we speak there are kids who have not been to school over the last three years.
“How can we speak of the future of youngest country in the world?” he said.
Akodjenou said the High Commissioner launched an appeal for 1 billion five hundred thousand US dollars this year. So, far, he continued, we have not received a lot; but there is the need to care for the refugees and for the population that is taking care of the refugees.
Humanitarian catastrophe in the making
“If nothing is done, we will be going through the most tragic, the most dramatic humanitarian situation we can possibly witness today in Africa” he said.
Akodjenou expressed his belief that the solution must be of political nature.
It is necessary, he said, “to build consensus among the politicians in order for them to share the responsibility, the power, to put in place security arrangements and to put into practice the minimum needed in terms of building the rule of law in that country”.
“All those elements are missing as we speak but something needs to be done” he said.
Meeting in the Vatican
Akodjenou revealed that he was received by Vatican authorities and during his meeting he was able to express appreciation and esteem for the intervention of Church authorities in the last peace talks in Addis.
He said he was also able “to pay tribute to the interest of the Pope” who has expressed his concern repeatedly for the country, and was given the opportunity to speak of the need to maintain international interest and to share news of what is the situation on the ground, calling for more solidarity – international solidarity – for South Sudan.
The Pope, he said, continues to pray for peace in the country, and that is very important for the people. But he said they continue to be in need of the minimum to be able to survive and that, he said, will come only from solidarity.
Finally, Akodjenou said he appealed for Vatican diplomacy to continue to be used to “bring people together to find a peaceful way to deal with the country”.