South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war

400,000 dead, 4.5 million displaced, seven million in need of aid

Isaac Billy/UN Photo

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, was born less than 10 years ago after a decades-long conflict and secession battle with Sudan ended in 2011. But since gaining its independence, it has barely seen two full years of peace.

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A fragile peace deal signed in September 2018 brought a few months of relief as fighting largely subsided across the country. But since the start of 2019, violence has escalated between government forces and rebels who refuse to accept the agreement.

Conflict began in South Sudan in December 2013 after political in-fighting between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar escalated, soon including other opposition groups and spreading beyond the capital. The conflict has seen armed militias aligned along ethnic lines engaged in combat and attacking civilians en masse.

In the last five years, it’s estimated that nearly 400,000 people have died: at least half from conflict, the other half from hunger and disease. At the same time 1.9 million others have been internally displaced, and more than 2.4 million live as refugees in neighbouring countries that include Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan; the vast majority are women and children.

South Sudan's crisis in three maps


Displacement Food insecurity Conflict

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Numerous ceasefires and attempts at peace have been negotiated since 2013, but most have quickly fallen apart. A peace deal was signed in 2015, but when it collapsed less than a year later, forcing Machar to flee the country, the war splintered into myriad inter- and intra-communal conflicts, incorporating previously localised disputes over land, resources, and power. Ethnic divisions have also become more pronounced – especially since 32 new states were established – and traditional front lines are changing into widespread guerrilla warfare as numerous militias are involved.

Last year's revitalised peace agreement brought a cautious optimism for some who hope that maybe, this time, peace will hold. But on the ground, the effects of the agreement are not always visible.

Since the start of 2019, violence has displaced thousands in Central Equatoria and thousands more across the border into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Elsewhere, armed attacks, including mass rapes, have continued; many civilians are afraid to leave IDP camps and return to their villages; and many refugees in neighbouring countries are sceptical, feeling that the agreement is more about political manoeuvring than about peace.

At the same time, half a decade of intense conflict has decimated the country’s economy; the World Food Programme says South Sudan’s meal-to-income ratio is 300 times that of industrialised countries. As a result, hundreds of thousands are in need of food aid, and parts of the country have also experienced famine.

Overall, the UN says, seven million of the country’s 12-13 million population are in need of assistance; communities require help with food, healthcare, education, protection, water and sanitation, and other basic services that the government is unable to provide.

As fighting continues, peace seems elusive to many South Sudanese. But the real challenge into the future, even if peace does hold, will be how to rebuild lives, livelihoods, and public services in a country where aid organisations have strained to fill the gaps for years.

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