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South Sudanese in a ‘tinderbox’ says UN official

02 January 2015


Heavy load: a woman pulls a bag of cereal being distributed by the World Food Programme in Bor, South Sudan, last month

Heavy load: a woman pulls a bag of cereal being distributed by the World Food Programme in Bor, South Sudan, last month

AS THE dry season approaches, the people of South Sudan are in a "tinderbox", the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has warned.

The country has suffered internal conflict since 15 December last year, when a political dispute escalated into violence that is now running along ethnic lines. Speaking on the anniversary of the outbreak, Prince Hussein said that a high level of mistrust, based on perceived support for either the government or the opposition, meant that violence was easily triggered. The end of the rainy season, which will facilitate the movement of troops, is expected to increase the risk of blood- shed.

In the past year, the UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have been killed. About 1.9 million have fled their homes. UNICEF reports that about 400,000 children are unable to attend school, and 12,000 have been recruited as child soldiers. It is expected that four million people - a third of the population - will be in receipt of humanitarian aid next year.

"The people of South Sudan are living in a tinderbox, with emotions high, an abundant flow of weapons, and with both sides recruiting fighters - often forcefully, and including children," Prince Hussein said. "The hopelessness in the camps of internally displaced people is palpable." He urged both sides to use peace talks in Addis Ababa, which resumed on 18 December, to "avert another human catastrophe".

In November, the talks, facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an African trade bloc, led to an agreement to cease hostilities unconditionally, and bring the war to an end. But, within days, the opposition accused government forces of breaking the ceasefire, and fighting broke out again.

The head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, Ellen Margrethe Løj, warned last month that the patience of the international community with both sides was "wearing thin". The conflict was "brutal, man-made, and thus ultimately avoidable".

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said on the anniversary of the conflict that the leaders of South Sudan had "allowed their personal ambitions to jeopardise the future of an entire nation".

The conflict was triggered when the President, Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka and leader of the ruling SPLM party, accused Riek Machar, his former deputy, from the Nuer tribe, of attempting to stage a coup ( News, 20 December, 2013).

Last month, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), Skye Wheeler, said that civilians had suffered "repeated abuses at the hands of men in power and their armed forces", and that neither the South Sudanese government nor the opposition leadership had taken any action to hold these men to account.

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