The humanitarian situation in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, is dire and deteriorating, aid workers say, with hospitals shelled, food supplies running low, tens of thousands of people taking refuge in churches and many more displaced as fighting between government and opposition forces rages for a fifth day.
Explosions and heavy weapons gunfire was heard across the capital of the world’s youngest country on Monday, while local, regional and international powers called for calm amid growing fears about the return of civil war.
The death toll is thought to be more than 300, including scores of civilians, although there are few clear and reliable details on casualties from the fighting.
At least one hospital has been hit by shellfire, along with camps where the United Nations provides protection to people who have been displaced. On Monday streets in Juba were deserted except for people fleeing the ongoing clashes, locals contacted by telephone said.
Both Kiir and Machar were reported to have ordered their forces to ceasefire on Monday evening. But it was not immediately clear who was leading the fighting, raising concerns that longtime political and military rivals might not have full control of their forces. This could signal a dangerous phase in South Sudan’s ongoing power struggle, said analysts.There are statements from both [Kiir and Machar] calling for calm but it does seem they have lost control of their respective forces,” said Ahmed Soliman, an expert in east Africa at the thinktank Chatham House in London.
Aid workers in Juba said the situation had deteriorated since the weekend. “There is random shooting and quite heavy mortar fire. We don’t know who is responsible. The humanitarian situation is dire. It was already very difficult to get food even for the urban population, and a week of fighting has made it much worse. Around half the population has been forced to leave their homes,” said Florence Mawanda, country director of the NGO Tearfund, speaking from Juba.
A list compiled by church authorities shows that about 15,000 people in the city have now taken shelter in churches or other religious buildings. Many more have moved to UN-run camps. Others have fled into surrounding rural areas.
The fighting in Juba started when five government soldiers were killed at a roadblock on Thursday. On Friday a unit of Kiir’s elite troops clashed with Machar’s bodyguards as the two men met for talks. Fighting appears to have escalated rapidly, with tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships deployed.
The clashes in the capital have exposed South Sudan’s ethnic divisions; Kiir’s supporters are largely Dinka and Machar’s followers mostly Nuer.
The violence also echoes the fighting that erupted in December 2013 and heralded the beginning of civil war. Tens of thousands died and more than 2 million people were displaced before the fragile peace agreement could be negotiated last year.
Diplomats are scrambling to rescue that deal, but privately admit this might be difficult. The US has told its citizens it will evacuate all non-essential staff from South Sudan, which gained its independence from its northern neighbour Sudan after a referendum in 2011 backed by Washington.
The Canadian embassy has closed entirely, according to a message sent to its citizens. India is planning to evacuate its citizens, according to a tweet by its external affairs minister. The main airport in Juba remained shut on Monday evening.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council on Monday to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, sanction leaders and commanders who are blocking the implementation of a peace deal and to fortify the UN peacekeeping mission.
For the moment, the violence appears limited to the capital. Aid officials in outlying areas told the Guardian that operations were continuing normally. But the fighting in Juba could threaten critical assistance for millions of people, they warned.
“There are activities in remoter areas but even if things are calm there, they are heavily reliant on Juba for logistics. So if the situation [in the capital] continues then activities including [feeding] children, pregnant women and IDPs will stop,” said Mawanda.
A statement from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international medical and humanitarian group, said: “Any upsurge in fighting that spreads elsewhere in the country will quickly have grave consequences, especially for the most vulnerable.”
About half of South Sudan’s population of 11 million people are threatened with famine; inflation is at 300% and the country is effectively bankrupt.
An array of powers and institutions – including neighbouring countries, the UN and the US – have called for the restoration of calm. The UN security council, after an emergency meeting on Sunday, told Machar and Kiir to “do their utmost to control their respective forces, urgently end the fighting and prevent the spread of violence” and commit themselves to their peace deal.
Machar returned to Juba only last month to take up the post of vice-president in accordance with the peace deal. His forces and those of Kiir were supposed to mount joint patrols to secure the city. However, with tensions high, the plan appears to have had little chances of success.
“Bringing together … opposing sides in the capital which have been fighting each other and which have deep grievances was risky at the least,” said Soliman.
Many of the thousands displaced by the renewed fighting in Juba are sheltering at two UN bases, a World Food Programme compound and other areas, said Matilda Moyo, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. One is situated in a district that is a stronghold of fighters loyal to Machar.
There were 67 injuries and eight deaths in the UN base on Sunday, according to an internal situation report circulated among humanitarian organisations and seen by Associated Press. Water tankers have not been able to bring water to the tens of thousands sheltering inside. There were reports that a clinic had been shelled, and possibly hit.
Two peacekeepers from China were killed at the base on Sunday night, according to Chinese state media.
The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan has been accused repeatedly of failing to protect civilians, most notably during a February attack on a base in the northern city of Malakal where at least 30 people were killed.
On Monday, the US sharply criticized renewed heavy fighting.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the return to violence in South Sudan. It must stop,” national security advisor Susan Rice said in a statement.
“This senseless and inexcusable violence – undertaken by those who yet again are putting self-interest above the well-being of their country and people – puts at risk everything the South Sudanese people have aspired to over the past five years.”