Millions of Refugees Flee South Sudan as Conflict Rages On

Displaced South Sudanese women walk towards the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal on January 12, 2014. About 60,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says. Photo credit: Simon Maina, AFP
Displaced South Sudanese women walk towards the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal on January 12, 2014. About 60,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says. Photo credit: Simon Maina, AFP
Displaced South Sudanese women walk towards the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal on January 12, 2014. About 60,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says. Photo credit: Simon Maina, AFP
Displaced South Sudanese women walk towards the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal on January 12, 2014. About 60,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says. Photo credit: Simon Maina, AFP

In an August 17, 2017 call for urgent support, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated “Over the past 12 months, an average of 1,800 South Sudanese have been arriving in Uganda every day. In addition to the million in Uganda, a million or more South Sudanese are being hosted by Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic.  More than 85 per cent of the refugees who have arrived in Uganda are women and children, below age 18 years… Recent arrivals continue to speak of barbaric violence with armed groups reportedly burning down houses with civilians inside, people being killed in front of family members, sexual assaults of women and girls, and kidnapping of boys for forced conscription… Since December 2013, when South Sudan’s crisis erupted in Juba, more than two million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries while another two million people are estimated to be internally displaced.”

With the disappearance of any form of government administration in South Sudan, the country finds itself in a disastrous situation. There are some school buildings without teachers or students, some medical buildings without personnel or medicine; there are some soldiers but who are not paid and so ‘live off the land’. There are armed bands more or less organized on a tribal basis, but tribal organization has long been weakened beyond repair. All that is left is hatred of other tribal groups. Different United Nations bodies are active in the country, including a large and costly ‘peacekeeping mission’ (MINUSS), but the UN has so far refused to create a ‘trusteeship’ to try to administer the country. Therefore, there are basically only services of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program distributing food, but very inadequate to meet the food needs, and UNICEF providing some services to women and children. There is no UN administration of the country as a whole as there is a fiction that a government continues to exist. The same holds true for any form of ‘trusteeship’ by the African Union.

South Sudan has always been more chaos than administration. During the British colonial period, the areas of South Sudan were administered from Uganda rather than from Khartoum as transportation from the North was always difficult. (1) The independence of Sudan and the start of the civil war came at the same time in 1956. There was a ten-year break in the civil, North-South, war of 1972-1983 at which time the war took up again from 1983 to 2005. After 2005, a southern regional government was set up with, in theory, an administration which remained very thin or non-existent outside of the capital Juba and a few larger towns. The churches, mostly Protestant but also some Catholic, provided education and medical services.

The bitterness of the civil war period was so great that it was felt by many that a unified Sudan was not possible. In 2011, a referendum was held in South Sudan on its future, and there was a massive vote for independence. The Association of World Citizens was one of the non-governmental organizations invited by the Government of Sudan to monitor the referendum, and we had sent a five-person team. I thought that full independence rather than a form of confederation was a mistake and that the future would be difficult. However, I did not foresee how difficult it would be.

Now it is difficult to see what can be done. There is only the fiction of a government and no over-all leadership of the armed bands. There are no recognized leaders to carry out negotiations. The churches are the only trans-tribal institutions, though the membership of local churches are usually drawn from a single tribal/ethnic group.  There may be times, if one follows Aristotle’s cycle of types of government, when the chaos will give rise to demands for strong leadership, but there are no signs of it yet. For the moment, moving to another country seems like the best hope.

Note:

(1) See the two-volume history of the administration of Sudan: M.W. Daly. Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan 1898-1934, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

M.W. Daly. Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium 1934-1956, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Rene Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.