At the Pagak border crossing between South Sudan and Ethiopia, the border is marked by a simple bridge over the river. Two flags hang side-by-side from bamboo poles. Since the outbreak of civil war in December, 2013 people fleeing violence inside South Sudan emerge here after walking for days.
I met one woman, Nyabiel, in a reception area not far from the border. She had recently arrived after walking more than 300 miles over the course of many weeks. Along with two of her children, she had fled fighting in her hometown of Bentiu. “When we got to the next town, the town was gone,” she said. “And then the next town was also gone….” She did not know where her husband and other children were. She was very thin and seemed extremely tired. I had the sense that the scenes of devastation she had witnessed were still fresh.
Last November, U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Patricia Haslach and I visited camps set up in the north of Ethiopia for young people fleeing Eritrea. Now, just after the third anniversary of South Sudan’s independence -- what should have been a happy occasion -- we were in western Ethiopia, in the Gambella region, meeting refugees from South Sudan.
Another refugee we met served as a well-spoken representative for the camp. He had already spent nine years as a refugee in Ethiopia, before returning to South Sudan in 2006. Yet here he was again: a refugee for the second time in his life. Looking around, I realized the terrain here presents a challenge for refugees in that there is plenty of land but it floods during the rainy season, so dry patches of land for tents are scarce. Only 10 percent of children are attending school. Most had been in classes in South Sudan before they fled.
They flee a conflict between government forces led by South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and forces aligned with his rival and former vice president, Riek Machar. This is a completely unnecessary, man-made crisis that has resulted in over 1.5 million South Sudanese becoming internally displaced within their own country, while an additional 403,000 have fled the country and are now refugees. Meanwhile, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has skyrocketed in South Sudan. UNICEF says that up to 50,000 children could die of malnutrition within months if humanitarian agencies are not able to scale up efforts to identify and treat severe acute malnutrition.
The good news, to the extent there is some, is that Ethiopia keeps its borders open to refugees from neighboring countries, communities hosting refugees have been welcoming, and the international community of aid agencies is engaged. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is coordinating the detailed response. Refugees are issued tents and household supplies. Children are vaccinated to protect themselves and others from the spread of disease. The Irish organization Goal is distributing food, including high energy biscuits provided by the World Food Program to help children suffering from malnutrition. Trucks bring clean water and refugees gather by the water taps to fill their pails.
A big part of this help comes from the United States of America. While in Ethiopia, I was able to announce an additional $22 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to the crisis in South Sudan. This latest piece raises the total U.S. contribution in this fiscal year to more than $456 million. U.S. assistance helps ensure that aid workers and refugees have what they need, whether it is clean water or food, health care, or treatment for psychological scars. The generosity of the Ethiopian people is also commendable.
Meeting the man experiencing exile for the second time, talking to the woman traumatized by war, and seeing so many children out of school filled me with despair. The killing of six humanitarian workers in South Sudan this week reminds us that the violence continues and the plight of those fleeing is real. Like so many Americans, I had great hopes for South Sudan. These hopes for the future must be set aside while South Sudan and its neighbors once again cope with the devastation of war.