South Sudan army offensive drives more refugees toward Ethiopia border

South Sudanese villagers at a UN food drop in Jonglei in 2015 (Credit: Radio Tamazuj)

South Sudanese government forces pushing from west to east have driven up to 100,000 people from their homes in Jonglei state, many of them toward Ethiopia, while also forcing the evacuation of dozens of humanitarian workers.

The military offensive comes in spite of government claims to be adhering to a peace deal signed with the SPLM/A-IO rebels in August 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It also follows an event at which President Salva Kiir appeared to publicly order an attack on Waat, which was at the centre of recent fighting.

As many as a quarter million people are at risk of displacement as the military offensive continues, depopulating vast tracts of Jonglei. Most of them would likely end up in refugee camps in the western Ethiopian region of Gambella, which already hosts more than 300,000 refugees.

Kiir’s troops, known as the SPLA or SPLA-Juba, are battling Riek Machar’s troops known as the SPLM/A-IO or SPLA-IO, along a front in Jonglei that includes Uror and Nyirol counties. The president’s objective is to drive SPLM-IO troops out of the area and install a governor loyal to him, whom he has already appointed. During the first stage of the war from 2014-2015 this area saw no fighting.

The United Nations says the SPLA assault this month has forced nearly 60 aid workers to flee from Waat, Walgak and other locations in Jonglei. They left on Friday and Saturday last week.

“The situation deteriorated in the second week of April, as a government offensive swept through multiple villages, including in areas where fighting previously flared up in late February,” the United Nations’ humanitarian headquarters in the South Sudanese capital Juba said in a weekly bulletin released today.

Where are the displaced civilians heading? It’s hard to know yet for sure because communications networks in the remote Jonglei area have been cut off and aid workers have evacuated; the UN says it can’t yet verify displacement pattens due to the “fluidity of the situation.” But it cites Lankien, Akobo and Ethiopia as possible destinations, estimating that up to 100,000 people have fled so far.

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Displacement in north-central Jonglei State as reported by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), April 20th, 2017

Rebels acknowledge losing ground to Kiir’s SPLA forces as the offensive continues. Rebel military spokesman William Gatjiath Deng told the independent Radio Tamazuj on Wednesday that they lost control of Waat town after attacks launched by SPLA troops. However, he said their troops were still battling with government soldiers around Waat on Wednesday.

Radio Tamazuj said it could not reach government officials for comment on the ongoing offensive. Army spokesman Brig-Gen. Lul Ruai, himself a former rebel official, hails from the territory which is now under attack and may not be free to comment or is not briefed on the ongoing operations.

As civilians flee from Uror County and spill into neighboring Nyirol County, the UN says food supplies there will be strained. Food security experts had already classified Nyirol area as facing an “emergency” level of food insecurity (known as “IPC Phase 4”), which is just below the famine classification.

If Nyirol county is unable to cope with the inflow of refugees, or if it too falls to government troops, then more of the displaced population would likely travel toward Ethiopia in order to find food.

The UN says it has needed to cancel food drops for more than 11,200 people in Nyirol. The evacuation of aid workers also disrupted other “vital humanitarian programming,” including education, health, nutrition and sanitation programs in rebel-held parts of eastern Jonglei – one of the few rebel-held areas where aid workers were still operating.

Eugene Owusu, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, wants the combatants in Jonglei to do more to protect civilians and uphold international humanitarian law. “I am deeply disappointed that… humanitarians are again having to relocate, and civilians again being uprooted, in an area where needs were already high,” he says.

In the meantime, new insecurity is also reported in government-held Pochalla County, bordering Ethiopia farther to the south but untouched by the current fighting elsewhere in the state, and in Pibor County, where both rebels and government troops and allied militia are present. The UN says it is concerned about the possibility of conflict flaring up in Pibor County as well. Two major raids into Ethiopia were launched from the Pibor area, also known as Boma State, since 2016.

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