Doctors Without Borders Aid Worker Describes Dire Humanitarian Situation in Southern Sudan

StoryJanuary 10, 2006
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In Sudan, a peace agreement that halted a 21-year civil war between the Khartoum government and Southern rebels remains on shaky ground. We speak with the Operational Director for Sudan Medecins Sans Frontieres who recently returned from the southern region of Sudan about the humanitarian situation. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue looking at Sudan, we focus on the conflict between the north and the south of the country. A year ago, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Kenya.

This was viewed by many as an end to the 21-year civil war that has claimed over two million lives, according to UN estimates. It was Africa’s longest and costliest civil war. The SPLM fought against the Islamic government in Khartoum, seeking more autonomy for the people of southern Sudan, who are mostly Christian or animist.

And now, a year after the peace deal, millions of Sudanese still live in fear of violence. A humanitarian crisis stretches on, as aid workers report that 25% of children in the south die before they reach the age of five.

Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir signed a power-sharing constitution last year that created the office of vice president for the country. The peace agreement also promised religious freedom and an equal share of oil wealth to the south.

Former SPLM leader John Garang was sworn in as Sudan’s first Vice president in July. His sudden death a few weeks later in a helicopter crash brought the peace deal to a halt. Riots broke out among Christians and Arabs in the country killing 130 and injuring more than 100. Since then, the SPLM has been less active at the national level.

The peace agreement is still in place, but only tentatively. Gunbattles continue between rival clans and southerners have accused the Khartoum government of arming militias and rival clans to terrorize southerners. Some 500,000 southern Sudanese are expected to return home this year, but communities reportedly still lack food and water.

  • Pete Buth, the Operational Director for Sudan Medecins Sans Frontieres. He recently returned from the southern region of Sudan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now, to talk about the situation on the ground, by Pete Buth, the Operational Director for Sudan Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders. He just recently returned from the southern region of Sudan. Welcome to Democracy Now!

PETE BUTH: Thank you, good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: When were you there?

PETE BUTH: I’ve just returned last week from a three-weeks visit to southern Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is on top of a year ago, you being there?

PETE BUTH: My last visit was about a year ago, so I’ve been able to compare the situation from just before the peace deal to now.

AMY GOODMAN: What have you found?

PETE BUTH: Well, it’s a mixed picture. In the area I visited, which is the eastern part of southern Sudan, Upper Nile, there is a few positive signs. There’s a degree of stability now. People have begun to return home to their villages. People are able to access markets that previously didn’t exist or they were unable to access because of the frontlines. So there’s a few positive signs. On the other hand, I was shocked to see that, in terms of the humanitarian situation, not much has changed, and we still have to describe the situation as a chronic crisis in southern Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does that crisis manifest itself?

PETE BUTH: The people I’ve talked to that kept mentioning three major issues, which is water, food, and health care, not necessarily in this order, but those three issues are of major concern of the population down there. There was a village that I visited with a — where we run a small health post, and the closest water source was a two-hour walk away. And that was not a hand pump with clean water, that is a swamp with dirty contaminated water, which people are forced to drink. So some very, very basic needs have yet to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: And who’s responsible?

PETE BUTH: Southern Sudan is an area that is one of the most inaccessible and remote areas in Africa. And the region was never really developed. And the people have suffered for more than 20 years of war. It’s completely devastated. So there has never really been an adequate level of services. And the services that are being provided for now are entirely dependent on aid agencies. And what is required is a sustained effort by all the actors, including the aid agencies, to provide basic assistance until some level of construction and rehabilitation is achieved.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening to the kids?

PETE BUTH: Many of them die, unfortunately. In our clinics, we see patients who walk for days or hours to bring their sick family members. But we also know that areas further away are just too far away for people to reach health facilities. So we have to assume that many people die from very preventable diseases, like diarrhea, or curable diseases, like malaria, in areas that are just too remote and where there’s no assistance whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the presence — what do you think needs to happen in the southern region, not to be confused with Darfur? And is the African Union involved?

PETE BUTH: Well, in the southern region, the African Union is not present. There is, I think, an effort going on to develop southern Sudan, but we have to recognize that this is a massive effort, and in the meantime, what people need is direct humanitarian assistance to survive the day. They still struggle every day to survive. I talked to a woman in our clinic who had brought her daughter to receive treatment and asked her what her plans were in the future. And she said, 'Well, my major concern is I need a blanket; that's what I need.’ So that’s the level of needs that people face.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what happened to the Sudanese refugees in Cairo? You had hundreds of refugees who were desperate, who camped out outside of the U.N. refugee agency in Cairo. And the Egyptian police moved in and killed a number, particularly kids and older people. It looked like it was something like close to 30 people were killed. What about the situation of Sudanese refugees fleeing Sudan?

PETE BUTH: Well, there’s an estimated four million Sudanese who fled southern Sudan over the years. Many have fled to other parts of Sudan, but also to Ethiopia, to Uganda, to Kenya and to Egypt. Some of them have started to come back. Others are still waiting. It is very, very difficult to say how many people will return, in which time frame. And fundamentally, it’s a good thing if people feel confident enough to return to their villages, but ironically, given that the level of assistance is so inadequate and insufficient, they will put an extra burden on the already stretched services.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the death of John Garang and what it has meant, even this time many months later? There was supposed to be the shared power agreement. He becomes the vice president, and then dies in a strange helicopter crash.

PETE BUTH: Well, again, for the Sudanese people that I have talked to, they’re sick and tired of being subjected to violence and displacement. They want to get on with their lives. They are concerned about the very basic needs that they need for daily survival: water, food, health care. That’s what these people need now.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you suggest that they get it? What can people in this country do to help the people of Sudan?

PETE BUTH: I think what is required, in particular, in the Upper Nile area is an urgent sustained scaling up of basic humanitarian assistance. It will take a long, long time until the Ministry of Health will have the capacity to provide health care. There is very few health facilities. There is zero infrastructure in southern Sudan. No roads. Many areas can only be accessed by plane or by boat or by foot. So it’s a massive logistical effort. There is very few trained Sudanese health staff. So what is required is that the international community and the aid agencies step up their efforts to provide the services that are required today.

AMY GOODMAN: And do the people of southern Sudan trust the Sudanese government now?

PETE BUTH: I don’t think it’s — I — it’s hard to say, for me. I think, again, what the people I have talked to, their main concerns are how to feed their families today and how to get their sick children to the health facilities and where to get water from for the day. So I think many people are not all that concerned about the bigger political picture. For them, it’s just about survival.

AMY GOODMAN: Pete Buth, I want to thank you for being with us, Operational Director for Sudan Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders.

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