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South Sudan: the humanitarian challenges of a new State

29-08-2011 Interview

In July 2011, the Republic of South Sudan became a country in its own right – the youngest in the world. Daniel Duvillard, head of ICRC operations in the Horn of Africa, speaks of the challenges this momentous event has created for the population, the government and humanitarian organizations like the ICRC.

Q: You were there when independence was declared on 9 July. What do you remember of that day?

It was overwhelming – you could really sense that history was in the making. I found it moving to see an entire population reach out for peace in their country. Sadly, we've not seen any sign of that peace yet: the country is still plagued with internal conflict. Violent clashes continue between the national army (the former Sudan People's Liberation Army or SPLA) and armed opposition groups, mainly along the border with Sudan. These, coupled with tribal warfare in the eastern state of Jonglei, have forced thousands to flee their homes.

Q: What are the greatest humanitarian needs in South Sudan?

Firstly, there are the pressing needs arising from armed violence and natural disasters, such as food and water for displaced people. Then there are the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who, recently returned from the north, now need help starting a new life. In addition, public services are lacking, leaving the whole population with limited access to health care, education and even drinking water.

Humanitarian organizations have an important role to play at this time, as the new government is not yet at a point where it can completely fulfil its responsibilities in this regard. There are many such organizations operating in South Sudan – over 130 working in health care alone, and more or less the same number again working in the water sector.

Q: Does this mean there are high expectations of humanitarian organizations?

Most of these organizations have been in Sudan for dozens of years, so the population is familiar with them. I think people have higher expectations of the government. The government, meanwhile, has limited capacities and probably expects more support from humanitarian organizations, especially in carrying out projects and reaching certain targets. Before that can happen, I believe the government must create a framework within which these organizations can operate. The organizations, in turn, must make sure their activities are helping to build the capacities of the new State.

Q: What does all this mean for the ICRC?

The ICRC will continue to work mainly within the scope of its mandate, which is to respond as quickly and as effectively as possible to pressing needs brought on by armed conflict and other situations of violence.

We must help the injured, for example. We now have a permanent presence at Malakal hospital and we've put together a surgical team that can work as a mobile unit, taking its services wherever needed. The team recently joined forces with Médécins Sans Frontières in Nasir to treat dozens of people who had been injured in a string of particularly bloody attacks in Jonglei state. We must also make sure that the displaced have enough food and water, and decent hygiene conditions . All of these activities fall within the ICRC's traditional mandate.

Obviously, we have to think of the long term too. Thousands of people have fled their villages and have reportedly sought refuge, among other places, in the states of Jonglei and Unity. The resident population of these states needs our help to cope with this influx in a sustainable way. We're already running a number of small programmes to support food production, such as distributions of seed and farming tools, and cattle vaccinations, and we've recently started repairing water-supply facilities.

A major facility has been restored to use in Akobo, Jonglei state, giving 55,000 people access to water. Powered by solar energy, it is cheap to run and easy to maintain.

Something else to bear in mind is the fact that, as a country in its own right, South Sudan can now join international treaties. At the ICRC, we're obviously most interested in those relating to international humanitarian law and will help the new government to sign up.

Q: Is there now a National Society in South Sudan?

Yes, the South Sudan Red Cross Society is already up and running. It comprises a secretariat and 10 branches of the Sudanese Red Crescent, which pre-date 9 July, though which now bear the emblem of the red cross. It was not difficult to set up two separate Societies given the existing structure. The new Society has a branch in each one of the country's 10 states and is supported by a large volunteer base. Given its close contact with the population, it has the potential to be of great service to the South Sudanese. It is therefore in the interests of both the ICRC and the government to help the Society to develop.

We've approached the government about officially recognizing the South Sudan Red Cross and we hope that over the coming weeks a law will be adopted to that effect. We've also initiated the process by which the new Society will become part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Q: Does the fact that we have been active in southern Sudan since 1984 make it easier for us to carry out our work?

Yes, to some extent. Most of the members of the current government are very familiar with the ICRC, having come across us repeatedly during the last war. They are, on the whole, positive about our work and are very grateful for all we did at that time, particularly in terms of health care. They remember our hospitals, such as the one in Lokichokio, Kenya, where we treated the injuries of various SPLA members.

As a result, we have no need to lay new foundations, but the nature of our relationship with the government will nonetheless have to change somewhat. Since its members were the leaders of what once was the armed opposition, we will perhaps need to remind it of its increased obligations towards the South Sudanese population.

Q: What is the current set-up of the ICRC in South Sudan?

The umbilical cord linking us to Khartoum has been cut and our main office in Juba now reports directly to headquarters in Geneva. We also carry out activities via our offices in Wau and Malakal. We currently have around 220 staff working in the country, of which 40 or so are expatriates, and we will soon be strengthening logistical and administrative capacities there.



Daniel Duvillard

Women sing during a ceremony to mark South Sudan's independence. 

Women sing during a ceremony to mark South Sudan's independence.
© Reuters / T. Mukoya

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