Calm returns to Lobonok as displaced civilians appeal for humanitarian assistance
Recently displaced by fighting in the mountainous mining areas of Lobonok, civilians are appealing for humanitarian assistance as relative calm returns to the county, located a strenuous three-hour drive from the South Sudanese capital, Juba.
Women and men have been speaking about their displacement and immediate needs in meetings with members of a Nepalese contingent serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) during a military patrol, deployed in the area from Wednesday to Saturday.
“Clashes happened, and we’re all in fear,” says Chief Maurice Kenyi Gaetano, the head of Kelang village, near Kaperto, when asked about the security situation. “We have been in living in fear. Since last year, there has been unrest,” he says, as another elder, identified only as Christopher, quickly adds:
“There is still fear from insecurity, but now, we hope things will normalize because of the presence of forces on the ground,” he says, referring to the presence of UNMISS peacekeepers.
The UN Peacekeepers were rapidly deployed in the area on Wednesday, after clashes were reported between South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) and Thomas Cirillo’s National Liberation Front (NAS) on Monday and Tuesday, with an unconfirmed number of casualties – although locals put the count at 13 – all on the government side.
But there are also SSPDF – the national military forces – who have set up a military base at a school in the area, effectively rendering it unusable for education-related activities. The county security advisor says this is a temporary measure, and they will soon vacate the school.
“There’s a school, but it’s not functional,” laments one woman in Pager.
On the way to Kaperto, peacekeepers encounter civilians going about their business normally – some digging up sweet potato mounts, while others work their sorghum farms – with little evidence of tension associated with people fleeing conflict.
On reaching Kaperto, a short, fifteen-minute drive from Kelang, UN peacekeepers encounter Chief Perenzo Kusaung, head of Kaperto Payam (a collection of villages). Although clashes happened a short distance away from his village, he says civilians under his care are safe.
“No civilians were injured in the recent clashes,” he says, before adding: “Our immediate concern is food insecurity for the displaced people – about 2,000 of them altogether – together with the host communities,” he reports.
Most of the displaced, the chief tells the UNMISS patrol, are civilians who had moved to the mining area in Paya and set up base there, working in the mines and supporting their families back in Kaperto. But the clashes have forced them to return home, destitute.
Here, they have joined other returnees – from refugee settlements in Uganda – who were recently drawn back home by the relative peace prevailing across the country, following the signing of a revitalized peace agreement in September last year.
This has only served to increase the number of people in need, putting an immense strain on whatever meagre resources the host communities welcoming them back have.
In meetings with civilians, from the Lobonok County centre to Kaperto, peacekeepers heard tales of food insecurity, lack of clean water, education, and health facilities.