The cost of South Sudan inaction: flashbacks to Rwanda’s humanitarian nightmare
Columns of troops are marching off to war and around them young children play in the shell of a looted school. This is is the Upper Nile State, an area in South Sudan’s north-east devastated by a conflict increasingly fought along largely ethnic lines.
Remote and hard to reach, the intense and sporadic fighting here makes it problematic for humanitarian agencies to access and draws parallels with what began in Rwanda 20 years ago today.
The Rwanda conflict claimed close to 800,000 lives, with many more displaced. The ensuing chaos made humanitarian relief next to impossible.
But the loss of life also served as a potent lesson for the UN and international community of the cost of inaction.
Now in 2014, aid agencies are facing fresh challenges that sometimes make it even more difficult to provide help – and throw into question our progress since Rwanda.
When the crisis erupted in South Sudan in December, many of us were reassigned from other global trouble spots and had to quickly adjust from the challenges of Syria or the Philippines, to those of South Sudan.
In other parts of the country, it is even more difficult to move around due to ongoing fighting. With about a million people displaced and an impending food crisis, the humanitarian community is struggling to even meet the needs of the 70,000 people inside UN bases. Outside the relative safety of UN protection, the security situation makes it almost impossible for agencies to operate – this is where the vast majority of the displaced are stranded.
World Vision has been able to reach people in need with water, sanitation and basic cooking equipment and is striving to reach more.
But all this highlights two worrying factors making it harder to distribute aid.
The first is that there are four large humanitarian crises currently demanding relief efforts. Events in Syria, the Philippines, South Sudan and Central African Republic mean that resources are already stretched to breaking point, without considering that another disaster could strike at any time.
The second is that the security situation in three of these countries makes it highly challenging for people to access the aid they need. Such conflicts are symbolic of a larger trend, where fighting between fragmented forces are leaving vacuums of power and control. In these circumstances it is increasingly difficult and dangerous for aid agencies to operate. Lacking assurances of safety, it can limit where humanitarian staff can travel and as a result, who they can reach.
Following Rwanda, the world said “never again” and promised that enough assistance and protection would be provided to people wherever, whenever they needed it. The children I meet in South Sudan who are far too familiar with guns and violence remind me of why this promise was made, and why it is important that we keep it.
Twenty years later it is worth asking ourselves how well we are living up to that commitment and if we are prepared to act today so that we do not need to once more say “never again” tomorrow.
A generation of South Sudanese children are awaiting the answer.
Johan Eldebo is a Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor for World VisionTagged in: International aid, Rwanda, South Sudan, un
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