The medical aid group – Doctors Without Borders – describes conditions at a camp for the displaced in South Sudan as appalling. The group, also known as MSF, accuses the U.N. mission, UNMISS, of not doing enough to protect thousands of people there. U.N. officials deny the accusation and say protecting civilians is their top concern.
About 21,000 people are crowded into the Tomping U.N. peacekeeping base in Juba. People fled to the base after fighting broke out between government forces and rebels in December.
Stefan Liljegren -- MSF Project Coordinator in Juba – describes conditions in Tomping.
“They are cramped up in a very, very tiny area, which is known to be flood prone, and flooding has already happened due to rain. The humanitarian organizations have been pushing for more space. The UMISS here in Juba [is] really putting a lot of obstacles for humanitarians working here in this area. One obstacle after the other is being presented to us. Instead of finding solutions to the problems, they are postponing and changing ideas, and they’re giving a piece of land and taking it back again,” he said.
He said just getting from shelter to shelter is a problem.
“People have their houses in standing water -- and to reach a lot of these houses now you walk to walk through waters that are 10, 15, 20 centimeters deep.”
MSF warned conditions are ripe for an epidemic of diarrheal, respiratory and skin diseases.
UNMISS has announced plans to close the Tomping camp next month and move people to a base known as U.N. House or Juba house. It’s on higher ground.
The MSF project coordinator said it sounds good, but there are problems.
“It’s not a bad idea to move these people to another location, but the time frame on this is completely out of sync. Because the new place will not be ready in time to move these people. And, meantime, more space needs to be allocated within the U.N. compound so we can prevent potential very bad spread of diseases here.”
Liljegren said heavy rains will greatly slow or block any move to the U.N. House location, which already holds 11,000 displaced people. What’s more, he said, that humanitarian groups have encountered repeated obstacles or refusals from UNMISS to getting more space in Tomping.
“Some people are really understanding of the situation and are really helping us. But then local commanders or battalion chiefs are blocking – ‘no, you cannot have this space because I need it for my battalion’ -- and some other commander says, ‘no, I need one for containers’ -- and another says ‘I need this’ – and nobody’s giving,” he said.
He rejected UNMISS’ assertion that it’s doing all it can to help and protect civilians.
“They are not doing everything they can,” he said, “not at all. They could have done a lot more a lot sooner. We have been asking for this for a long time.”
UNMISS spokesperson Ariane Quentier agreed conditions are bad at the Tomping base and said the situation is of great concern.
“It is of great concern for two reasons. One is that this place is not meant and appropriate to have thousands of people living there, but it is congested. And it’s always been congested from the first day because people literally flocked into our site, fleeing for safety when the violence erupted. The other concern is, of course, the rainy season. That makes the conditions even worse.”
She said UNMISS is well aware of the danger of a possible disease outbreak.
“If you take the combination of these two elements, which is the congestion of the camp and the rainy season, you have a situation where this protection site [is] turning into [a] death trap. Because if there is an outbreak of disease this will spread throughout the area like wildfire,” she said.
Quentier said UNMISS has a two-part strategy to deal with the situation.
“One is to try to have people relocating on a voluntary basis to other areas. What I’m calling other areas is either extension of existing sites that we have on our compound – or new sites on land made available to us by the government. And this is something we’ve asked the authorities from the very first day – to have more land to be able to decongest the site,” Quentier said.
About 1500 people of the 21,000 at Tomping have been relocated to other sites so far.
Part two of the strategy, she said, is improving conditions at existing sites, including water, sanitation and basic health services.
“We have been saving thousands of lives by the mere fact of opening our gates and having for the last three and a half months over 80,000 people who have stayed on our bases. And I think this is what the people wanted. They voted with their feet. They are still on our sites. And I think UNMISS has saved 85,000 lives, plus prevented the country [from] descending into worse chaos.,” she said.
Quentier added that UNMISS has a “duty to protect them.”