United Nations officials and aid agencies warned Tuesday that the humanitarian situation in South Sudan is rapidly deteriorating, with women and children the hardest hit.
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan said some 100,000 people have been internally displaced by fighting that broke out nine days ago in Juba and has spread across the country.
The majority of the displaced are women and children, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) country representative Iyorlumun Uhaa said.
“We know that this is disproportionately affecting the lives of children," Uhaa said.
"As the situation continues to evolve, we are very concerned that the lives of many, many more children will be at risk,” he said.
While fighting has died down in Juba, hundreds of children have been separated from their families and are living alone at two U.N. camps in the capital, Uhaa said.
UNICEF and the World Food Program are trying to provide temporary shelter and emergency food rations to as many of them as possible, he said.
But the bigger concern is the children whom
humanitarian agencies have not been able to reach, especially in Jonglei state, which has been a flashpoint in the fighting, Uhaa said.
“A lot of children that are in the Bor area, we have no access to them because of the growing insecurity, and we are so concerned about what is happening to them,” he said.
The U.N. estimates at least 17,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Bor.
Women Vulnerable in Overcrowded Camps
Wendy Taueber, the head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in South Sudan, which has a program to treat victims of gender-based violence, said women are particularly vulnerable in the overcrowded camps that have been set up for people fleeing the violence.
“There’s no safe space for women in the camps," Taueber said.
"There’s not a safe place to even have a conversation, let alone start to look at bigger issues like the extent of sexual violence,” she said.
Taueber and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said the fighting is continuing to spread. MSF reported Sunday that it received 24 patients with gunshot wounds after clashes broke out in Upper Nile state, in the northeast of the country. Two of the patients died, MSF said.
Fighting has been reported in at least half of South Sudan's 10 states over the past nine days, and officials estimate that more than 500 people have been killed, although a precise toll is not available.
President Salva Kiir has blamed the clashes on a failed coup attempt by his former vice president Riek Machar, an accusation that the former deputy has denied.
President, ex-Deputy Open to Talks
Both the president and his former deputy have said they are willing to hold talks to try to end the violence.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mawien Makol Arik said Kiir is ready to hold talks with Machar without conditions.
But the former vice president, who has been in hiding since the fighting broke out, has told different media outlets that he will not enter into a dialogue with Kiir until 11 senior members of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party, who were arrested in the days after the fighting started, are released.
“The president has set the dialogue without conditions. Machar is putting conditions for him, but the president says, 'I am accepting dialogues with no conditions.' So dialogue is accepted but has not occurred yet,” Arik said.
Government officials have said they will not release any of the political leaders who have been arrested until security forces complete an investigation.
U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, confirmed after meeting with Kiir in Juba on Monday that the president has agreed to hold talks with Machar, without conditions, to try to resolve the conflict.
Booth also met with the group of 11 political leaders who are being held in Juba, and said they are "secure and well taken care of."
"These individuals communicated to me their desire – and their readiness – to play a constructive role in ending the crisis through peaceful political dialogue and national reconciliation," Booth said.