The flag of South Sudan was raised at the UN for the first time in July 2011. Photo: Getty
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“This is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman”

Three years on from the signing of the peace agreement in South Sudan, the heady optimism has disappeared.

“To have your own home is a feeling of freedom”, smiled Martha, one of many hopeful refugees I met who made the journey home after South Sudan declared independence in 2011.

Ten years ago I was amongst the small, apprehensive crowd who watched the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It was a privilege to be there. Many doubted they would see that day, let alone the historic events of 9 July 2011 when the world witnessed the birth of the world’s newest nation. I looked around the small group: everyone was silent, some people were actually holding their breath. On that momentous day all the troubles from the decades of violence that preceded it were forgotten as the people of South Sudan united in eager, hopeful anticipation.

“I will be so happy when I have my own home. When I am settled I will be able to start my life again,” Martha had said so excitedly.

Fast forward less than three years and that heady optimism has disappeared. CARE International’s Head of our South Sudan office describes a nightmarish, “soul-destroying” situation unparalleled in her 20 year career. We are witnessing a country, so recently awash with hope, plunge into a situation where nearly seven million South Sudanese are facing the awful prospect of displacement or severe hunger even to the point of starvation. Having worked directly with some of the communities affected by the crisis over many years I naturally feel pain when I see what they are struggling against now.

Since conflict broke out in December between the government and opposition, a million people have fled their homes within South Sudan, finding shelter in the bush or in the perceived safety of United Nations compounds across the country. Thousands have been killed, we have seen a wave of violent attacks, rapes and fighting that have plunged the fledgling country into chaos and led its people to the brink of a catastrophic food crisis.

And the world has just been watching, albeit aghast. As with Ethiopia and then later with Rwanda, the outside world seems to be caught in the headlights of a complex and volatile situation. This time the price of inaction could be extremely high. We know from experience that prevention costs much less than a full-blown emergency response.

Amidst the chaos, an insidious, lesser-known evil is growing: sexual violence and exploitation. Research being released by CARE ahead of William Hague and Angelina Jolie’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict shows that the escalation in the conflict has been accompanied by a rise in sexual violence, largely but not exclusively against women and girls, and our experience tells us this situation will worsen if the conflict continues. There is still time to prevent the worst from happening. The world must respond.

My colleague who heads up our mission in South Sudan told me how the impact of the conflict on women and girls has been particularly horrifying: women tied up, raped and then shot; women attacked in hospitals and churches where they had fled seeking safety with their families. There seems to be no safe place for a woman today in South Sudan.

Women are selling themselves for sex in exchange for access to drinking water for themselves and their families. Families are offering their young daughters as child brides in order to feed their other children. One woman we interviewed referred to another woman who had been raped as “lucky”, because it could have been worse – other women were raped and then killed.

In the face of the overwhelming need in South Sudan, the issue of sexual violence might not seem the most pressing need. However sexual violence is a symptom of a broader societal malaise that has never been properly addressed. If the violence does not stop, the repercussions of unpunished rapes and assaults will undermine and haunt the South Sudanese for years. We have seen this in other conflicts around the world.

We are responding with support to over 40 health clinics across the country, including in the areas worst affected by the fighting, providing first aid, food and water alongside maternal health services But it is a fraction of what is needed.  $1.27bn is needed now to prevent the worst, but barely more than a third of that has been raised. On top of this, we are calling for critical funding to provide support for survivors of gender-based violence.

As the world’s attention is stretched by other crises and world events, the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit is a tangible opportunity to help South Sudan’s most vulnerable in a time of extreme need. If we act now, we can prevent the very worst and signal real intent to support the people of South Sudan back on to a more hopeful path.

John Plastow is Programme Director and Acting CEO for CARE International UK. The Foreign Secretary and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will co-chair the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict on 10-13 June 2014 at ExCel London. CARE International sits on Hague’s steering group on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and will be hosting two events at the summit.

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.