The villages, or payams as they are called in South Sudan, of Dari and Lessi are in the northern part of a state where even the name and borders are disputed. Few people know where these payams are. Fewer care. The men, women and children surviving there are the casualties of war that are not counted.
They are besieged in a triangle of violence. They live in an area controlled by the largest rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-iO). The South Sudanese government provides no services there. Humanitarian organizations only reside in government-controlled areas and will not venture into this territory. And the people’s biggest fears come from 3-4 attacks per year by cattle keepers. About 50,000 people live in the area, although census data is unreliable. They have been cut off from humanitarian access for over 5 years.
Last August the governor of the opposition requested NP to open the way to these payams for humanitarian groups to come and to assess the suffering. In a careful demonstration of NP’s nonpartisanship, our team notified the local government as well as the military commanders of both sides. As one humanitarian observed, “If NP goes other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will go.”
In late August the team set out for Dari. While they cruised the first two-thirds of the way on a good crushed rock road, they navigated the last 27 km on faint tracks through vegetation taller than the vehicle and tire swallowing mud. After having to employ a winch four times to get out of the muck, they arrived at Dari.
As word spread an astonished and welcoming crowd swelled and greeted the team. They conducted a rapid needs assessment they found a community in dire need of food with many children showing signs of malnutrition. The village was not only without medications but had no soap. People with blindness and other disabilities were prevalent. Two teachers who hadn’t been paid in two years plus volunteers staffed the primary school, the only school in operation.
A week later the NP team ventured deeper into the bush to Lessi payam bringing Oxfam along with them. There they found similar conditions. Food insecurity. Nodding disease and malaria. Women without access to menstrual hygiene products. Unmanaged community latrines. Almost 5,000 people having access to one borehole. The elementary school had been closed three years ago after cattle keepers attacked it killing three children and a chief.
After issuing a Rapid Needs Assessment along with Oxfam, NP started advocating for basic needs. Mediations have arrived. The UN’s World Food Program has conducted an assessment but still has not delivered food. UNICEF will start programming soon.
On November 28, I joined our team and a team from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the local Lacha Community Empowerment and Development. The NRC had requested our accompaniment so that they could conduct a shelter assessment. I wish I could report that we found a miraculous recovery but conditions in war weary lands don’t change quickly. Both Dari and Lessi still appeared under siege. The wheels of humanitarian agencies operating in a country with huge need turn slowly. We will continue to advocate.
People reported that since NP came in August they now travel freely. As a positive indicator of the revitalized peace process, a truce was called by the two opposing militaries. Clashes have stopped. One man shared, “During the war it was like a prison. Now we can move to other villages.”
Indeed war creates a tortuous prison for millions. NP will continue to play a vital role in opening these prison doors by venturing to places where no one else will go and opening humanitarian access.