South Sudan: Helping the sick and the hungry

CARE's Yida clinic before the recent violence © CARE / Toby Richards

I had left South Sudan for Christmas vacation. By the time I reached my destination in Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya, shooting had begun in South Sudan’s capital Juba.

It was a bad sign, but who could guess that the shooting would set off six weeks of political violence? I didn’t think it would take me a month and a half to get back to my office in the town of Bentiu, where CARE manages the support of healthcare facilities for a region called Unity — or that the office would be gutted and the town in ruins when I got there.

It was an anxious six weeks, with only occasional and sketchy reports getting out from the local staff who remained in Unity, doing what they could to save lives amid the fighting and destruction. They were cut off by the violence.

We returned to Unity as soon as it was possible, flying in on an air service run by the UN and headed straight for the UNMISS compound, still the only safe place for internationals to stay. We camped in tents amid swarming mosquitoes, but our conditions were luxurious compared to those in the Protection of Civilians (PoC) area, right next door, where thousands of people had crowded in search of UN protection from violence that had raged just outside. 

Unity State has been one the hardest hit by displacement, with more than 180,000 people, or about 27% of the state’s population, made homeless by the fighting. 

We conducted nutrition screening in PoC area and found that 17% of the children we screened were suffering from malnutrition. 

The people here are still too afraid to go home; and given the widespread destruction, some of them have no homes to return to. 

They are also stuck here because they’ve lost everything. Even if there was any food to buy in town, they have no money to buy it.

The town of Bentiu, like our office there, was a mess. Homes and food stores were burned down, assets were looted or destroyed and animals driven away by armed groups. Markets were reduced to ashes after looting, yet the main road from Juba to Bentiu is not safe for traders to truck supplies from the national capital to Bentiu.

I set about reassembling CARE’s local staff, finding some and sending word to others that we were ready to get underway. Many were unreachable, scattered about the country or even into neighboring countries in an attempt to keep their families safe.

CARE is starting nutritional services for people sheltering at the UN compound, then scaling up to reach the displaced in town and, as soon as the security situation allows, in surrounding villages. CARE is also planning to set up a mobile clinic in Bentiu, until we can get the regular clinic we had been supporting here – which was looted – stocked back up and operational.

"We didn't expect CARE to come back"

Before long, we hope to have all 24 of the clinics we’ve been supporting in Unity State back in operation. Before flying into Bentiu, I visited our office in Yida and a large clinic in Pariang that we’d been in the process of converting into a small hospital when the violence started. Pariang is Unity’s northernmost country, on the border with Sudan.

The primary health care clinic we support there was not destroyed, but for a time it was deluged with people wounded during the conflict. At the time, one of the local cornerstones of our program, Dr. Sam, was the only doctor, working with a skeleton crew. 

In a week he treated hundreds of emergencies, many of them bullet wounds or difficult deliveries.

Members of the community came to the clinic’s aid, helping move patients and swabbing the blood that covered the floors. When I walked into the clinic a local health worker who had been slumped in a chair jumped to his feet and shouted: “I didn’t expect CARE to come back after what happened here,” he said, taking my hand.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.