Who will protect the people of South Sudan?

On Tuesday morning we received bad news from Malakal. The Oxfam team there reported heavy military attacks on the capital of Upper Nile State. Our colleagues, who were working on health promotion with the people living in the UN Compound, had to move to the bunkers in the base. They are still waiting for the fighting to decrease, when they will likely be evacuated.

Hostilities have this a.m. broken out in #Malakal: all parties engaged in the violence must uphold people's rights & protect non-combatants.

— Toby Lanzer (@tobylanzer) February 18, 2014

Later that day, rebels claimed they had retaken the city, which had been under government control. And a day before, Nuer and Dinka engaged in a conflict inside the camp, exchanging gunfire.

No matter the political background of this conflict, a Pandora's Box has been opened that will not be easy to shut again.

The people in Malakal will have to make up their minds: depending on who gains control, will they be either relatively safe, or will they be in acute danger? This all depends on what ethnic background they come from – Dinka or Nuer, and who wins – the government or the opposition.

Hundreds of thousands have fled

Farah Karimi visits UN House, Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, leaving behind their land, their livestock and all their possessions in the days and weeks following 15 December, when violence erupted.

The question that keeps spinning in my head, while I travel on to North Uganda, is what will be the fate of the young Nuer men, who I saw in the UN House camp for displaced people in Juba. Even in the capital of the country, where the government is in control, they feel they are only relatively safe behind the fences of the UN compound. In their mind, walking out of the gate of the compound could be the end of it.

Responsibility to protect

And even more alarming, what about the thousands of people who are hiding across the country, Dinka and Nuer alike? This is a question that should be asked to the leaders of South Sudan. Protection of the people is a primary responsibility of the government of a state. Also opposition forces leaders should ensure people are protected in the areas under their control. Here is a country where the responsibility for protection is in fact 'outsourced' to the UN, but only as far as the gate of the compound.

Talking to the refugees in the camp the other day, made me feel really sad. And I got quite angry too, about the apparent lack of responsibility of this government, as well as the oppositional groups. I think the international community will have to make up their mind.

If both the government and the opposition groups cannot provide the necessary protection to the population, then the international community will have to act, and stand between the parties and provide protection, not only within the limited premises of the UN compounds, but across the country, where thousands of desperate people have been abandoned.

Farah Karimi is Executive Dirctor of Oxfam Novib. She is travelling to South Sudan and Northern Uganda, to witness the impact of the crisis in South Sudan and to assess the needs of the population.

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