News / Africa

Aid Agencies Scramble to Avert Health Disaster in South Sudan Town

Residents of the South Sudanese town of Bentiu flee toward the U.N. base after fresh fighting and targeted killings rocked the town.
Residents of the South Sudanese town of Bentiu flee toward the U.N. base after fresh fighting and targeted killings rocked the town.
Andrew GreenCharlton Doki
Humanitarian agencies are scrambling to provide services to thousands of new arrivals at the United Nations base in Bentiu, where the number of people seeking refuge has risen more than six-fold since opposition forces overran the town 10 days ago.

“At the moment, in our base in Bentiu, we’ve got over 350 people who are sharing a latrine, the reason being that, just 10 days ago, there were 4,500 people in the base and today it's 25,000," the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said after visiting Bentiu last week.

Lanzer said the number of civilians seeking protection at the camp "is growing exponentially and we’re in a real game of catch-up to provide... services to people who are seeking our protection.” 

Aid agencies are building latrines and digging boreholes for the new arrivals as quickly as they are able to, Lanzer said.

Latrines collapse, drinking water scarce 

The start of the rainy season in South Sudan has added to the woes of thousands who have fled their homes to seek protection inside the U.N. base in Bentiu after a resurgence of fighting in Unity state was followed by what the United Nations has described as targeted ethnic killings, allegedly carried out by opposition fighters.

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said thousands of people who have flooded into the U.N. camp are receiving just one liter of drinking water per day and reiterated Lanzer's warning that sanitary facilities are inadequate.  

"The situation has become really, really desperate there. It was down to just one liter of safe drinking water per person, per day, and people cannot survive on that," UNICEF spokeswoman in South Sudan, Doune Porter, told VOA.

Trucks that bring fresh water to the camp "face a precarious security situation and frequently become stuck on roads muddied by heavy rains," and the rains caused several latrines at the U.N. base to collapse, UNICEF said. 

If the rainwater mixes with sewage, "That's absolutely a recipe for a public health disaster," Porter said.

"So, between getting more water up there and constructing new latrines, we're hoping very, very quickly the situation will improve," she said.

But UNICEF has lost supplies that were supposed to be sent to Bentiu, to looters, Porter said.

According to UNICEF, many other aid agencies have pulled out of Bentiu altogether because of the volatile security situation.

Bodies litter streets of Bentiu

Lanzer said that during his visit to Bentiu on Sunday, he counted "well over 100 bodies... lying in the streets and in the market area and around religious institutions -- places where people thought that they would be safe."

He said the macabre scenes he and other U.N. officials saw in Bentiu were "the results of targeted killing, which has come during an episode of violence, I think never before seen in South Sudan to this extent."

The United Nations on Monday accused anti-government forces of carrying out targeted killings in a mosque, a Roman Catholic church, a hospital and an abandoned World Food Program (WFP) compound where people had taken shelter. The opposition fighters allegedly entered the different places where people had sought shelter from the fighting, and singled out and killed people based on their ethnicity or nationality.

The targeted killings are believed to have taken place after opposition forces recaptured Bentiu last week from government troops.
It was down to just one liter of safe drinking water per person, per day, and people cannot survive on that.

The U.N. quoted Lanzer as saying he saw the remains of people who were had clearly been executed, including people who were trying to seek shelter in a mosque in Bentiu.

U.N. officials saw a tractor removing bodies from the road near the mosque, taking them for burial.

Shoes and clothes were scattered all over the mosque's compound, and a pile of bodies lay decomposing outside the gates of the place of worship, the U.N. said.
The opposition said in  a news release that the accusations against it “baseless” and “ridiculous."

A spokesman for the rebels denied to VOA that opposition fighters targeted civilians in Bentiu. 

"What they were doing is to make sure the town was clear, looking maybe for remnants of government troops. They were not looking for civilians," ​ opposition spokesman James Gadet told VOA.

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