I was recently able to travel to Agok in the Republic of South Sudan to witness the full-blown humanitarian crisis affecting refugees and internally displaced people following months of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army over the disputed Abyei border region and its rich oilfields.
The remote town lies about 40km south of the border with Sudan. Travelling to most parts of the area is difficult for anyone who does not have access to an aircraft, helicopter or reliable 4×4 vehicle.
However, there is a network of gravel roads around the region and one of those winds upstream along the mighty Kiir River, which flows approximately 800km through southwest Sudan and marks part of its border with South Sudan.
Agok and its surrounds have played host to tens of thousands of people displaced by the war, many of them from Abyei.
The fighting broke out when the Sudan and South Sudan armies fought for weeks along the disputed border, the worst violence since the south gained its independence from the north just more than a year ago.
The African Union’s peace talks, led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, have been hampered by disagreements over where to mark the disputed border and how much landlocked South Sudan should pay to export oil through northern pipelines.
During a field trip with officials from Médecins Sans Frontières, I witnessed the desperate plight of the displaced populace at one of the organisation’s hospitals in the area.
The heat was unbearable as I prepared myself to see patients who had been admitted to the hospital.
Most of the sick were women and children under five. They lay on makeshift beds with flies buzzing around their anxious faces.
Celine Motta, the medical team leader, said the number of children admitted to the hospital had doubled over the past few months. Deaths had more than doubled because of diarrhoea and infections, including pneumonia.
As a result of the heavy rains, the hospital had also started receiving an unusually high number of malnutrition cases, the major cause of infant mortality in South Sudan.
Motta said the lack of proper shelters and the start of the rainy season had also resulted in the first cases of malaria.
The rains, she added, cut people off from vital services such as medical care, food and clean water.
She said many people already did not have enough food and the rains would make the situation worse.
Motta, a sweet-spirited woman who had worked as a Médecins Sans Frontières medical team leader for the past few years before moving to South Sudan, said the organisation focused on performing life-saving surgeries, treating malnutrition, providing reproductive healthcare, vaccinating children and providing access to secondary healthcare.
“Our facility is well equipped and we have enough staff to deal with any emergencies, such as conflict and outbreaks of diseases. However, we do not have enough staff from the local population who are properly trained and we have to rely on expatriates to do the job,” she said.
According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, South Sudan’s states of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Warrap, Unity and the Upper Nile are now home to more than 200 000 refugees who have fled the violence along the border with Sudan.
Nearly 4 000 refugees cross the border daily and many have walked for up to two weeks without food, shelter or sufficient drinking water for the better part of their journeys.
The majority of the refugees are pastoral nomads and most of them come from the Dinka Ngok tribe. Many were killed and displaced in the 22-year-long civil war between the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya, an Arab tribe that was armed by President Omar al-Bashir. Their homes were burned down and their cattle and other possessions stolen.
There is little available for them on their arrival in South Sudan. Although organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières provide medical care and distribute thousands of litres of water every day, there are usually only enough supplies to last a week.
Doctors said they had warned of the impending humanitarian catastrophe for months and were now calling for immediate assistance from the UN refugee agency and other foreign aid organisations.
The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan includes severe food shortages. A report from the Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme said 4.7-million people would not have enough food to eat this year in South Sudan and at least one million people required immediate assistance.
Sudan has argued that rebel attacks from the south prevent the much-needed aid from reaching those in need and its armed forces could not be blamed for the spiralling humanitarian crisis. This version of events has been strongly denied by the South Sudan government in the capital, Juba.
Last week the UN Security Council told the two countries to stop supporting rebel forces in their respective areas and to enter into a peace deal or face sanctions.