As tens of thousands of people in South Sudan starve to death amid a raging civil war, the government seems to be fanning the flames instead of trying to douse the fire.
One day after officially declaring a famine in parts of the five-year-old country on Feb. 20 ― the world’s first famine declaration in six years ― President Salva Kiir vowed to grant aid organizations “unimpeded access.”
U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Eugene Owusu praised Kiir’s commitment and urged swift action to support the millions of people in need. “Time is of the essence, and lives are in the balance, so it is critical that these words be translated into concrete actions on the ground immediately.”
But just a week later, South Sudan raised the cost of aid worker permits a hundredfold, from $100 to $10,000. Minister of Information Michael Makuei told The Associated Press that the change is intended to increase government revenue.
The timing is devastating. At least 100,000 South Sudanese residents are facing death, and 1 million more teeter on the brink of starvation. Of the country’s 13 million people, 6.1 million are in need of humanitarian aid.
The Huffington Post reached out to representatives of various international humanitarian agencies operating there, but they were reluctant to comment on the unfolding situation, as it remains unclear.
The government’s stunning move to hike the cost of permits follows a disturbing pattern of relief effort obstruction that has been documented since the civil war erupted in late 2013. It has repeatedly prevented aid groups from reaching and helping the people of South Sudan, who, Owusu says, are “suffering beyond measure.”
The tragedy of South Sudan is that the suffering is manmade.
Just two years after its liberation and independence from Sudan in 2011, a political power struggle between Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, exploded into violence that consumed the infant nation and plunged it into a gruesome spiral of self-destruction.
The chaos expanded from warring government and rebel forces into a feud between ethnic groups and has been prolonged by corruption to outlast a string of failed cease-fire agreements with no end in sight.
The horrific civil unrest triggered mass displacement, which hindered farmers’ crop maintenance. This, in turn, decimated South Sudan’s vital agriculture industry and created conditions for a famine that have been amplified by a severe drought. A subsequent cholera outbreak that began last June has infected thousands, and as of Friday it had spread to the crippled nation’s second-largest city, Malakal.
More than a quarter of the population has been forced from their homes since the start of the 2013 conflict, including at least 1.5 million people who fled the country as refugees. In four months, when South Sudan turns six years old, the humanitarian community anticipates 5.5 million people there will have severely inadequate access to food.
“The root cause of this suffering is conflict,” said U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, who returned from a visit to South Sudan this month. “People have been displaced, brutalized and raped. They have been attacked when they sought out assistance.”
At least 700,000 people have crossed the border into Uganda at an unprecedented rate of nearly 3,000 a day. Many have fled sexual violence, according to a report released Thursday by Refugees International. Some women described having to pay soldiers a “rape tax” in order to escape.
“We hired a driver to take us to the Oraba border point,” explained an unnamed South Sudanese woman featured in the report. “When we reached Kimba, there were two soldiers. They told the women to get out, to remove their clothes and lie down. The children saw their mothers get raped.”
All the while, the government has consistently thwarted humanitarian efforts to alleviate suffering and resolve tensions by blocking and even expelling aid workers.
The government has also been widely accused of stealing aid supplies. In July, thieves seized more than 4,500 metric tons of food from the World Food Programme’s main warehouse in the capital of Juba ― enough to feed 220,000 people in impoverished regions for a month.
A scathing report from Washington-based rights group The Sentry following a two-year investigation offers insight as to why the imploding nation is resisting outside help and seemingly exacerbating its own crisis. It concludes that top government officials have orchestrated, perpetuated and exploited the chaos in South Sudan to accumulate vast fortunes by looting billions of dollars from the country.
The war helps the rich get richer, explained actor George Clooney, co-founder of The Sentry, in an interview on “PBS News Hour.”
The president and other senior government leaders are not only “committing these crimes, which they have already been accused of,” Clooney said, “they’re profiting off of it.”
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights also released a report this week following a seven-month inquiry into South Sudan that accuses government forces and affiliated militia of using “the cover of an ongoing conflict to act as a ‘smoke screen’” while carrying out acts of civilian abuse that may amount to war crimes with impunity.
The comprehensive report outlines indications of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the war-ravaged country, including deliberate starvation, bombardment of civilians, forced displacement and burning of villages.
Survivors told UNCHR how South Sudanese soldiers use rape as a weapon of war. After suffering an anal rape last June that left her incontinent, one woman recalled, she was raped again and her genitalia was cut as punishment for “being stubborn.” She said she begged the assailants to kill her but instead was left for dead.
Soldiers are also accused of targeting aid workers. The U.N. claims armed troops beat and gang-raped its personnel at a private Juba compound last July. No one responded to their cries for help, the U.N. said.
Makuei dismissed the reports of atrocities committed by his government as fake news, according to local media outlets.
“There is no looming genocide in South Sudan. Nevertheless, the media houses, the reporters and everybody are still repeating the same thing; it is a matter of cut and paste. And when you cut and paste it would appear as if it is a new report,” he reportedly said at a press conference in Juba on Thursday.
“You find NGOs, humanitarian organizations talking about obstruction of their movement, [but] they are not being obstructed,” Makuei added. “They are being regulated, and if you don’t want to be regulated, then you are a no-system person, because you must be regulated by the laws of our country.”
Meanwhile, as Juba continues to deny culpability against mounting evidence, and as humanitarians grapple with yet another government-imposed challenge to reach the growing number of people so desperately in need of aid, tens of thousands of emaciated men, women and children languish in agony.