Almost two years since the eruption of the conflict in South Sudan, the situation continues to deteriorate with women and small children making up the majority of most recent casualties, a representative from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the country said today.
Speaking by phone from the capital, Juba, UNICEF Representative Jonathan Veitch confirmed to journalists in Geneva that dozens of children have been killed, raped and abducted in the Unity state over the previous two weeks.
“The deliberate targeting of children in these attacks is an outrage,” said Mr. Veitch in a press statement issued by UNICEF.
“If children are to be protected from further harm, an immediate cessation of hostilities is urgently needed, together with full access for humanitarian workers,” he added, underscoring that an urgent and thorough investigation is also required to identify and hold accountable those responsible for these latest atrocities against children.
Fighting has been reported to be ongoing even today, and it is unclear who was in charge of some areas. There were reports of women and girls being taken away to be raped or killed.
He said that a 17-year old girl, who had managed to reach a UN Mission (UNMISS) base, said that when the attackers had come, they had taken and burned her belongings. The attackers were boys, 16 or 17 years old, who proceeded to shoot many people. The girl did not have enough food to feed her 8-month old twins. This example shows how international law is being violated and the need for unconditional access to all areas.
According to dozens of testimonies from people who have fled burning villages, children have been both the victims and perpetrators of recent violence in Unity state, with armed men and boys in military and civilian clothing responsible for the widespread destruction of life and property.
UNICEF said that witnesses reported that they believed the attacks were undertaken by armed groups aligned with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
Mr. Veitch said that if people reached the refugee camps, children would at least be protected and taken care of, but outside of the camps, it is very difficult to provide protection.
There is no clear answer for the brutality. Some fighters explained that it was better to kill children now, before they grew up and returned for revenge, he said. It is an unprecedented use of children in conflict with almost 13,000 children registered to have been recruited by both sides thus far, Mr. Veitch said.
UNICEF has been in contact with the SPLA and trying to contact the opposition forces. There is a serious command and control issue at stake. The UN’s monitoring mechanism has shown that 13,000 children have been recruited over the past one and a half years.
Prior to that, South Sudan had been doing well in releasing children from armed forces and armed groups. The majority of the recruited children are likely in the opposition armed groups. It is becoming increasingly complex to work in the refugee camps due to the tribal differences, but services provided there are solid.
UN peacekeepers are providing a lot of protection, escort and patrolling and they have been targeted on numerous occasions outside of the camps. Mr. Veitch said that there was a strategic humanitarian response plan in place but it is extremely difficult to raise money for many of the budgets with many crises happening simultaneously around the world.
In some places in Jonglei State, people had returned home, Mr. Veitch explained, but in other places, the numbers of the displaced had gone up for security reasons and there were no indications that they would subside any time soon.
The agency added that fighting has been escalating in Unity and Upper Nile states in recent weeks, with violations against children occurring with frightening regularity.
Meanwhile, UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said today that in Malakal, UNMISS reported military movements in the area of Melut, in Upper Nile state. Three explosions were heard approximately 40 kilometres from the Mission’s base.
Some 270 displaced persons have arrived at the Mission’s protection site in Melut this morning, joining the thousand civilians already there, and another 250 to 350 civilians are also sheltering at a newly allocated protection area adjacent to the Mission’s base, said Mr. Haq.
“The Mission continues to be deeply concerned by the overall escalation of the conflict, and once again calls on the Government and Opposition leadership to immediately cease all hostilities and resume negotiations, with a view to signing a comprehensive peace agreement,” he added.