A Report from Bentiu, South Sudan

January 13, 2014
Written by Elke Leidel, Concern Worldwide Country Director, South Sudan
Photo by Colm Moloney

Reestablishing certainty and safety as anti-government forces take hold and displace the already vulnerable.

Bentiu, the capital of the oil-producing Unity State, was taken over by anti-government forces on the 19th of December, just four days after fighting broke out in Juba and swept across the country.

Our three staff based in Bentiu left on an evacuation flight just in time before the fighting broke out. All NGO vehicles, including our own, were seized by anti-government forces, while fighting spread to other cities and towns in Unity State. Thousands were forced to flee their homes, including many who have been living with little to no assistance since then because the ongoing violence and insecurity has made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach them.

Bentiu kids in camp.

Some 8,000 people are living at the United Nations base in Bentiu, the capital of the oil-producing Unity State. Concern Worldwide South Sudan country director Elke Leidel traveled to Bentiu to assess the needs of those displaced by the fighting, which broke out in Juba on December 15th and quickly spread to more than 20 sites across the country.

On January 5, I traveled with colleagues from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other humanitarian organizations to Bentiu to assess the needs of the civilian population. For the past three weeks, Bentiu was almost completely inaccessible as fighting and instability has made travel to the area by road impossible. We were apprehensive of what we would find.

Our three staff based in Bentiu left on an evacuation flight just in time before the fighting broke out.

Today, as many as 8,000 people are living on the UN base in Bentiu underneath makeshift shelters of sticks, cloths, and tarps.

We landed in Rubkona, a town less than four miles outside of Bentiu, just across the banks of the Bahr el Ghazal River. While Bentiu reportedly fell with little resistance, Rubkona experienced heavy fighting. While a few markets were open, Rubkona was largely deserted and damage from the fighting was visible, evoking the death, rape, looting, and mayhem that ensued in the town on December 19th.

As we have seen in Juba and other parts of the country, when violence rippled through Bentiu and the surrounding areas, people fled to the nearest UN base for protection. Today, as many as 8,000 people are living on the UN base in Bentiu underneath makeshift shelters of sticks, cloths, and tarps. People arrived at the base with whatever they could carry, and are largely reliant on the few UN staff and national NGO staff there to provide them with food and other basic essentials.

While Bentiu reportedly fell with little resistance, Rubkona experienced heavy fighting.

Today, as many as 8,000 people are living on the UN base in Bentiu underneath makeshift shelters of sticks, cloths, and tarps.

Sanitation is particularly dire, with people using the river that borders the camp for bathing, washing, and most likely drinking. While there are 16 latrines in the camp, all are in extremely poor condition—so much so that most people are choosing to not use them and going to the toilet outside, creating a heightened risk for disease outbreaks, particularly when the rains arrive in April.

Bentiu camp makeshift shelter

A makeshift shelter at the UN base in Bentiu, which is now home to some 8,000 people. Concern Worldwide has deployed to water and sanitation experts to Bentiu to promote access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

The situation has already changed dramatically in Bentiu since I was there. Government forces have regained control of the city. Security remains uncertain, but we were able to deploy water and sanitation experts to Bentiu, who are now tasked with ensuring access to safe drinking water and latrines for people living at the UN base.

But with fighting ongoing and no ceasefire in sight, the tragic reality is that this only skims the surface of the wider need. Roads to many locations remain impassable, making it extremely difficult to understand the scale of the needs, let alone deliver much-needed aid. In real terms, this means the very real threats of disease, hunger, and death will increase by the day as people are denied much-needed assistance simply because we cannot reach them.