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Fighting In South Sudan Forces Residents To Seek Safety

Jan 10, 2014
Originally published on January 10, 2014 10:45 am



On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

Let's hear from someone who is fighting an uphill battle to help victims of the violence in South Sudan. That young African country gained its independence a few years ago with help from the U.S. government. Yesterday, the U.S. demanded that the warring leaders of South Sudan sign a deal to end fighting that has killed several thousand people just in the last month. Tens of thousands of people are flooding the gates of U.N. compounds or just scattering into the countryside.

One person trying to reach them is Elke Leidel. She's South Sudan Country Director for the aid agency Concern Worldwide. She talked to us from the capital, Juba. Leidel began by describing what she saw a few days ago in an embattled state in the northern part of the country that has the sadly ironic name, Unity. She was at a U.N. compound there in the city of Bentiu.

ELKE LEIDEL: Part of the compound is now inhabited by about 8,000 people that have tried to flee the fighting. They are scattered over a large, large place. They brought nothing with them. Most of them are sitting there with little to protect them from the sun, from the heat. And some tarpaulins were distributed. Some brave NGO colleagues and U.N. are providing drinking water. But the situation with regard to sanitation is quite desperate. There are very few latrines - 16 latrines for a population of close to 8,000.

GREENE: Well, can organizations like yours and others, can you get there and build more latrines and get food and shelter? Or is it just too dangerous right now to have a big relief effort?

LEIDEL: We are trying since two days to get access to Bentiu. Ourselves and colleagues from other agencies are trying to respond. We have two experts on standby to ensure that more latrines are built, to ensure that people have safe drinking water. But for the moment, it seems that fighting is imminent. The population there is very panicky. Since yesterday, more and more people are trying to get into the base. They try to shelter as many people as possible and everybody is being allowed in.

There is, of course a weapons search at the gate to ensure that there is no conflict inside the camp because there are people from all directions coming from all different tribal affiliations, as well.

GREENE: Use the fighting is imminent, not far away. I mean, can you tell me how - in how many places in the country this scene is repeated, where there's just thousands of people hiding out and trying to get by to escape the violence?

LEIDEL: Unfortunately the situation is similar in quite a few other places. Here in Juba, we have two camps - U.N. camps also, U.N. military bases actually of the peacekeeping mission that are full to the brim with more than 30,000 people now, gathering in both camps. We have really reached the capacity limits there. Our goal is, however, is to reach the population outside of camps. This is still very difficult. Access is almost impossible in most of the areas in Unity State at the moment.

And I do think that this is the plea that we all have to do - as aid organizations, as the international community - to ask for unhampered and unrestricted access to the population.

GREENE: So right now, people who are not able to get to camps, that they're just not getting the aid that they desperately need right now.

LEIDEL: It's sporadic aid that can be delivered, that can be dropped to them but it is very difficult to reach them if they are not gathered at least in some places.

GREENE: Elke Leidel is the South Sudan Country coordinator for the relief organization Concern Worldwide. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

LEIDEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.