Notes from the field: The struggle for access in South Sudan
John Caccavale, Secure Access Researcher — South Sudan
All eyes are on Addis Ababa, waiting to see the fate of yet another proposed peace-agreement. Meanwhile, the most affected areas and people of this conflict remain cut off from humanitarian aid.
The SAVE research programme has monitored humanitarian access — the degree to which affected people are able to reach, and be reached by, humanitarian aid — in South Sudan for the past ten months. During lulls in the conflict, when aid agencies feel relatively safe at their program sites, with no shelling to be heard in the distance, it is the extreme logistical challenges of unforgiving terrain and remote locations that keeps aid from reaching further. During these times the focus is on airstrips, road conditions, flooding, the price of airplanes and helicopters, and the prioritisation of locations and supplies.
Other times, other times, it is all about security. When armies move, when attacks and clashes are rampant, this is when access becomes most difficult. With exception of the UN bases where civilians and aid workers alike hunker for safety, there are seemingly few options to deliver or receive services amidst active fighting.
Over the past several months there has been little opportunity to provide more than the most immediate and short-term assistance in much of the conflict region. Even during weeks when there is no obvious military offensive, campaigns of perpetual destabilisation are underway.
Southern Unity state, a region whose people suffered in recent months an unspeakably brutal wave of attacks, remains largely inaccessible as areas of control are unclear and raids continue on a daily basis.
Western Upper Nile state, including the UN base and civilian population in Malakal, had been cut off from supply lines whether due to fighting or a series of bureaucratic restrictions for months.
In April, I interviewed dozens of people in the southern Unity town of Leer, a town being contested even now as I type. During my visit to Leer I spoke with many women who walked miles to and from humanitarian food distributions, and others who had come seeking safety away from the frontlines of war. Acknowledging the physical burden of carrying heavy food for miles, they still insisted they felt safe to make the walk to and from aid, so long as they were within their community and away from outside forces. This was echoed by the newly arrived women who had fled Malakal — where they had been receiving aid on the UN base — because of daily conflict amongst different displaced communities inside the base.
It is this safety which has been taken away, the buffer zone that allowed people the freedom to move. The constant skirmishes, raids, and bureaucratic blockades have created an environment too unsafe for communities to come out of hiding and too unstable for aid workers to establish consistent presence.
As we look at humanitarian access challenges in South Sudan, security and logistical constraints have fused, and the situation is frightening.