THOUSANDS of children in South Sudan have been separated from their families and are surviving on their own in remote areas, an aid agency has warned.
Save the Children said the violence in the country, which broke out two weeks ago had led to a “chaotic” situation where many families became separated.
The charity said in one UN compound alone, it had identified 20 children who were without their parents or any other adult carer, but warned that the situation was likely to be much worse in areas such as Jonglei where the fighting has been at its most intense.
More than 121,000 people fled their homes when fighting broke out and at least 1,000 peoploe are feared dead. Many of the people who fled sought protection in UN bases, while others looked for shelter with host communities in safer areas.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s president warned yesterday that East African nations had agreed at a summit to unite to defeat South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar if he rejected a ceasefire offer, threatening to turn an outburst of ethnic fighting into a regional conflict.
Save the Children believes that thousands of others, including children, are likely to have fled to the remote bush: vast swampy areas where people will likely have no shelter, will be forced to drink stagnant water, and where they will have no access to humanitarian support.
“Identifying children who have been separated and reuniting them with their families is a priority for us, and we are working around the clock in displaced camps in Juba to ensure that families have access to their basic needs”, said Save the Children’s director for South Sudan, Fiona McSheehy.
“But we are very concerned that we cannot reach other parts of the country where the fighting has been escalating and where the needs of children are rising sharply.”
“During the conflict in Pibor earlier this year, Save the Children registered over 1,150 children who had been separated from their parents as a result of the fighting. This was in just one county of South Sudan,” Ms McSheehy said. “The recent violence has extended to over half the country, and we are extremely worried about the high numbers of vulnerable children who urgently need our support, but who we cannot access because of the on-going fighting.”
The UN, the US, and other Western countries who have poured millions of dollars of aid into South Sudan since it won its independence from Sudan in 2011, have also scrambled to stem the unrest.
Fighting between rival groups of soldiers erupted in the capital Juba on 15 December, then triggered clashes in half of South Sudan’s ten states.
President Salva Kiir, who sacked rebel leader Mr Machar in July, accused him of starting the fighting in a bid to seize power – a charge denied. He has since retreated into the bush and acknowledged he is leading rebel fighters.
“We gave Riek Machar four days to respond [to the ceasefire offer] and if he doesn’t we shall have to go for him. All of us.”