Conflict & Justice

Why three towns in South Sudan have 'utterly collapsed'


Residents displaced by recent fighting gather at a trading area within the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Malakal, in Upper Nile State.


Drazen Jorgic / Reuters

When talks don't work, slap 'em with sanctions.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

That seems to be the Obama Administration foreign policy playbook these days.

The latest US sanctions were announced Tuesday - this time against South Sudan.

The world's newest nation has been scarred by a deepening ethnic conflict for the past few months.

On one side: forces loyal to the country's president, Salva Kiir. On the other: fighters supporting his former deputy, Riek Machar.

Both leaders are being pressured to attend internationally-mediated peace talks. But progress is slow.

And Tuesday, US sanctions were imposed on two individuals - a military leader on each side.

Reporter Andrew Green is in Juba and says he sees a sliver of hope. He says the warring factions have agreed to stop fighting for one month beginning Wednesday to allow humanitarian agencies access to corridors where people who've been affected by the fighting are trapped.

But, he adds that just because leaders agree to a ceasefire that doesn't mean the rank and file will observe a truce.

"We have to take it with a grain of salt because there was a cessation of hostilities agreement signed in late January that was violated almost from an hour after it was signed," Green says. "So we'll see if this latest agreement actually holds. But it is the first time that the two sides have actually agreed on anything since January."

The agreement comes against a backdrop of heavy fighting in oil rich towns such as Bentui in Unity State.

"Riek Machar is very aware of the importance that oil has played. Machar has announced repeatedly that he wants to attack the oil fields, that he wants to hold the country's economy hostage which is basically what he's trying to do if he can take the fields," Green says.

Three major towns - the capitals of Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states in South Sudan's northeast - have born the brunt of the fighting.

"There's virtually no infrastructure left in those places," Green says. "The towns have utterly collapsed."

Those who flee the violence end up in displacement camps. Green has been to the camps in Juba, including one near the airport in a low-lying area.

"Now that the rainy season has started and will continue for the next four or five months, people are living in houses where water is coming up to their thighs and they have no choice but to sleep in it," he says. "I was speaking to a woman a few weeks ago ... And she has two young children and every time it rains she has to spend the next several hours holding the two of them so they don't drown."

South Sudan became the world's newest nation after seceding from Sudan just three years ago. Now more than more than one million South Sudanese have been displaced by fighting between two ethnicities - the Nuer and the Dinka.