A medical officer from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) attends to a child with malnutrition in a clinic in Old Fangak, Jonglei state, on Aug. 18, 2017.
A medical officer from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) attends to a child with malnutrition in a clinic in Old Fangak, Jonglei state, on Aug. 18, 2017.

JUBA - The head of Doctors Without Borders said armed groups have looted two dozen of the aid group’s medical facilities in South Sudan during the past 18 months, and is demanding the government provide better protection.

Joanne Liu is international president of the group, known by its French acronym MSF. She spoke to South Sudan in Focus after a trip to the country where she toured MSF facilities and met with President Salva Kiir.

Liu said the sad truth is that rather than protect medical facilities, warring parties in South Sudan will often target them.

After visiting the town of Waul Shiluk, where she saw a destroyed MSF facility up close, she said she told Kiir and other top officials that the looting and destruction of medical facilities in South Sudan is costing lives.

Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors
Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres (Photo courtesy of MSF)

“It’s just a reflection of the violence that is happening and what it does, as the biggest consequence, it’s depriving people of health care when it’s most needed,” Liu said.

MSF medical facilities have also destroyed been in places like Pibor, Leer, and Kodok, but Liu said the level of destruction she saw in Wau Shiluk was chilling.

“We had to take a boat for half an hour, then we had to walk for half an hour. It was clear to me when I went there and walked through Wau Shiluk that it has been completely burned down and looted. Our facility, which was a PHCC [primary health care center] of 30 beds, is completely gone,” Liu said.

Not pulling out

Despite rampant insecurity across South Sudan, mired in the fourth year of a war between pro-Kiir and anti-Kiir forces, Liu said her organization has no plans of pulling out.

“MSF is deeply committed to stay and work here in South Sudan, stand by the civilian population and offer as much as we can,” she said. "For us, it’s absolutely imperative that all parties to the conflict respect and protect civilians and people must be allowed to have access to life-saving services."

A South Sudanese child suffering from cholera sits
FILE - A South Sudanese child suffering from cholera sits on a bed in Juba Teaching Hospital in Juba, May 27, 2014.

Government responds

Kir spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told VOA on Thursday that the government is committed to protecting services like MSF.

“[W]e always observe the fact that we have to make sure we protect the medical facilities of the organizations that are helping our people,” he said.

He said any damage to medical facilities caused by government forces was “inadvertent” and happened as soldiers defended themselves.

Speaking on August 18 in Juba, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Hussein Mar Nyuot said it is government policy “to provide safety and conducive working environment to all the humanitarian workers in the country.” 

He added the government supports aid delivery to South Sudanese citizens in both government- or rebel-controlled areas.

Upper Nile State

But the destruction and looting of medical facilities continues across the country.

Liu said the war has taken a particularly devastating toll on civilians in the former Upper Nile State.

“When I was in the clinic in Aburoch and the clinic in Malakal, what was very striking is that people have lost hope because they have moved four times over the last few months and started from scratch all over again,” she said. They have no prospects of anything positive to come."

Liu said the lack of access to people in need is a huge problem. She added that MSF’s clinic in Aburouch is totally inaccessible by road due to insecurity.

"Access in all its forms, people [trying] to access our facilities is an issue, it’s difficult for them," she said. "And us accessing places that have concentrations of communities like in Aburoch, [where] there are about 16- to 18,000 people, is very difficult."

She said MSF appealed to authorities to ensure people can reach medical clinics when needed.

“We ask for access, we ask for respect where we work for our mobile units, for the facilities where we have people, not for us but for the patients,” she said.