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Civilians Flee, Aid Agencies Pull Out as Fighting Flares in South Sudan State

  • Mugume Davis Rwakaringi

Thousands wait for a 2014 air drop in Leer, South Sudan. Aid agencies partially withdrew from Leer on May 9, amid fears that new fighting will reach the town.

Thousands wait for a 2014 air drop in Leer, South Sudan. Aid agencies partially withdrew from Leer on May 9, amid fears that new fighting will reach the town.

A surge in fighting near the town of Leer in South Sudan's Unity state has sent thousands fleeing into the bush and forced major aid agencies, including Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), to evacuate staff and scale back services.

MSF head of mission in South Sudan, Paul Critchley, said Monday about 20 of the organization's nurses, doctors and administrators were evacuated on Saturday, amid fears that heavy fighting will reach the town.

Critchley said MSF evacuated the staff members because of what happened in Leer more than a year ago.

“In January last year, the hospital was looted, parts were burnt, our operating theater was destroyed," he said. "With reports of the conflict getting closer to Leer, we had to remove our international team,"

​Last year, an estimated 240 MSF staff at Leer Hospital fled into the bush, some carrying critically ill patients with them, as fighting closed in on the town. A month later, the medical staff were still in the bush, struggling to treat patients with rapidly dwindling supplies.

​MSF has run the hospital in Leer for 27 years. Critchley said in March nearly 8,000 people -- including more than 1,100 malnourished children -- sought treatment at the MSF facility. He said the surge in fighting in Unity state is putting a severe strain on the ability of organizations like MSF to help people in need.

"Clearly, if international humanitarian actors do not feel secure to work in any area, the population that relies on them for food, emergency medical assistance are at increased risk. Clearly, if children who are malnourished do not get therapeutic food, if families do not get food, if the conflict does move to Leer and the population have to run and hide in swamps out of fear, then there would be critical humanitarian needs that will not be addressed,” he said.

The ICRC also evacuated international staff members from Leer, which is 93 miles south of the state capital, Bentiu.

Thousands depend on aid

ICRC South Sudan spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said thousands have fled their homes in and around Leer because of the surge in fighting.

He said around 20,000 families in the area depend on the ICRC for food rations. Krzysiek said if the fighting escalates, "Those people will move towards swampy areas, they will have very limited access to food, they will have very limited access to basic services, to clean water. The situation of children and pregnant women who are particularly vulnerable in this kind of situation will certainly deteriorate.”

The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer , said in a statement that the humanitarian response in Leer "has come to a halt."

Lanzer said the interruption of relief operations will affect more than 300,000 civilians in the area. He also said the fighting is preventing people from tending to their crops during South Sudan’s short planting season.

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