Ebola. Gaza. Syria. The rise of Islamic State. 2014 was an incredibly difficult year across the globe.
Yet there is one crisis that seems to have escaped the world’s attention. One that seems to have ended up in the international “too hard” basket. And it’s happening in the world’s youngest nation.
In 2011, the world watched as the people of South Sudan took to the streets to celebrate the birth of their new nation; born after years of conflict, pain and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Yet, in December 2013, fighting broke out across South Sudan and that conflict is now a humanitarian tragedy on a massive scale. Tens of thousands of people have been killed by war, hunger and disease. Almost two million people have fled their homes and villages, including 490,000 people who have fled into the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan.
Large parts of the country are facing starvation in what the United Nations declared was the world’s worst hunger crisis.
In September, I visited Bentiu, in South Sudan’s northern Unity state, where about 45,000 people are crammed together in the UN’s Protection of Civilians site. Guarded by UN Peacekeepers, the site is in the middle of one of central Africa’s biggest swamps.
Flying into Bentiu, the scale of what people are living through hits home. Rows of huts, made from sticks, stray timber and thin pieces of tarpaulin, stand flimsily in shallow grey water.
Up close, the conditions are the worst I have seen. Built in a low-lying area that has been inundated by torrential East African rains, the people living there do what they can to keep the water out. But the water and the mud here are beyond anyone’s control. Mothers wade through knee-deep, faeces-contaminated water, carrying their children with one arm and jerry cans with the other.
Why would anyone choose to live like that? It is a testament to just how dangerous life is on the outside of the barbed wire fence that 100,000 people do, in fact, choose to live in these sorts of conditions at UN protection sites across the country. Most men cannot leave the camps out of fear of being executed by soldiers from either side of the conflict. And women cannot leave out of fear of being raped, which has become a frightening weapon of war.
When I spoke to some of the people in the Bentiu camp, their trauma was etched deep into their faces and their words. One woman, Mary, wept as she told me she had been on the run from December to April, living off plants in the bush, before she and her surviving children made it to Bentiu.
Angelina, a mother of four, described the difficulty of surviving in the camp: the need to get firewood to cook, the confined space, the water and mud. She told me: “We are under water here. But outside, it is still too dangerous.”
CARE is doing what we can. We’ve established clinics to treat the sick and to provide emergency feeding to severely malnourished children, we’re providing women with safe places to shelter and access support, and we’ve helped build toilets and water treatment systems, and are working to prevent cholera from taking hold.
And in these frightening conditions, people struggle to maintain their dignity. A woman named Sarah invited me into her small home where her whole family lived; her children, her brothers and her parents, all crammed into this wet, dark space. She invited me inside just to make sure I knew how thankful she and her family were for the toilets, the rubbish collection and the services CARE is providing in Bentiu.
Amid the stifling heat, the mud, the crowds of people clutching on to their survival and their dignity, my visit to Bentiu was a stark reminder of why organisations like CARE are still needed in a world that can offer people everything, or nothing.
Even with the chaos of IS, the bloodshed of Gaza and the terrible toll of Ebola, the world’s attention needs also to be on the world’s newest nation of South Sudan right now.
Donate to CARE Australia’s South Sudan Appeal at care.org.au/southsudan
DR JULIA NEWTON-HOWES AM IS THE CEO OF CARE AUSTRALIA