As the situation in Mundri continues to deteriorate, up to 44,000 civilians are in desperate need of food and medical aid. While aid agencies struggle to reach them, the most vulnerable are starving to death.
Between 6th and 7th of October 2015, SPLA reinforcements heading southward from Mvolo flooded into Mundri, unleashing a wave of terror on the civilian settlements in their path. According to desperate reports from horrified local authorities, the actions of the SPLA soldiers were both unprovoked and indiscriminate in nature. Faced with the prospects of what many believed to be a brutal exercise in collective punishment, the civilians took the only option that was available to them. They abandoned their homes, leaving everything they owned behind them, and fled into the relative safety of the bush.
It all began in May 2015, when clashes broke out between the SPLA and locally recruited civil defense forces along with elements of SPLA in Opposition. The fighting quickly escalated as another front in South Sudan’s civil war unexpectedly opened up, far from the heartland of the opposition in the northern states of Greater Upper Nile. The civilians bore the brunt of this fighting. Whether caught in the crossfire, or attacked in one of the SPLA’s many revenge rampages, or deliberately targeted on suspicion of providing material support to opposition forces.
“People there are starving to death” – Festus Mogae, JMEC Chairperson
Since then, aid workers have struggled to gain access to Mundri’s civilians, most of whom are trapped in an increasingly deteriorating situation and finding it next to impossible to sustain themselves and their families. Reports emerged in early January, in what was a clear violation of previous agreements with the government, that JMEC ceasefire monitors were prevented from reaching the site of clashes in Mundri. According to the accounts of the team, who had been dispatched to investigate allegations that the SPLA had used helicopter gunships against civilians, an SPLA commander in Mundri went as far as to threaten to shoot them if they persisted in their attempts to gain access to the area.
Latest estimates indicate that up to 44,000 men, women and children are in desperate need of food and medical aid. But given such intense insecurity, aid workers are unable to provide these life-saving services to the people of Mundri. This is further compounded by the closure of the Juba-Mundri road, a lifeline for transporting supplies to civilians in the area. Appeals to the government to intervene and re-open this road have so far gone unheeded.
“People are dying of hunger. Children have died of hunger and there were elderly people who also died of hunger.” – Pastor Felix Zara Kurai, based in Mundri
Aid agencies have been trying to secure safety assurances from all armed actors operating in the area but with limited success. The situation in Mundri has alarmed senior figures in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and stirred them into action. UNMISS has made it known that it is prepared to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and has signalled its intention to provide force protection to humanitarian stakeholders when requested. True to their word, UNMISS are currently organizing an aid convoy from Yambio. But Ariane Quentier, UNMISS spokesperson, warned that South Sudanese security forces have restricted the movements of the 150 UNMISS peacekeepers currently based in Mundri. It is unclear how the SPLA will respond to aid convoys entering the area.
What is increasingly clear is that situation in Mundri is grave, and whilst the international community is focused on establishment of the transitional government of national unity, rightly perceiving it as the best hope for sustaining the fragile ceasefire in Greater Upper Nile, the war continues to rumble on in Equatoria with terrible consequences for the civilian population.