The Bridge on the River Pathai

The dry season has begun in earnest, and with it conflict, drought and hunger.

Our assessments before Christmas indicated that the widespread flooding had decimated crops and food stores, and that household supplies would begin to run out in January.  With the next harvest season not until August-September time this would leave many families facing a hunger gap of over seven months.  Now, come February, these predictions are proving all too accurate.

The Nuer are a pastoralist people, and each year the men and youth head out in search of water for their most important assets: cows.  But with the move to the cattle camps goes an important source of food – milk, often mixed with the blood of the cow for extra iron, is a dietary staple – and the protection offered by the men along with it.

For this is traditionally the time when the majority of interclan and intertribal violence occurs – ‘security incidents’, in bloodless NGO parlance.

The Bridge on the River Pathai

The Bridge on the River Pathai

This year the always-fragile environment is further complicated by the continued presence of former SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army – the South Sudanese army) General David Yau Yau, who defected for the third time last year.  It is frequently alleged that Yau Yau receives arms and support from Sudan, who are keen to ensure Jonglei’s continued instability in order to prevent South Sudan from being able to access the oil reserves that lie beneath the swamps.

Regardless of the source of his provisions Yau Yau has proven extremely effective at disrupting the functions of the state, engaging in skirmishes with the SPLA across Jonglei, while simultaneously upending civilian life by re-arming the youth of the Murle tribe.

Seen as the main antagonists by the Nuer, the Murle are a small tribe who frequently face marginalisation and discrimination as a minority in a country still broadly split along tribal lines.  The SPLA faced international condemnation for its human rights violations against the Murle during the 2012 disarmament campaign: a report by the NGO PACT and the South Sudan Law Society alleged that the disarmament was “accompanied by beatings, intimidation and harassment but also more serious reports of killing, torture, and assault (including sexual abuse) in multiple locations across the state”.

Yau Yau has played on this discontent to rearm and recruit the Murle youth to his cause, while the Nuer do not trust that the SPLA are capable of or willing to protect them, and rumour has it they are beginning to rearm themselves.  Whether this is precautionary or in preparation for pre-emptive measures is unclear, but either way the portents are not particularly encouraging.



Last week the largest attack in over a year took place, with 134 mainly women and children reported dead, and another 500 people still missing.  (See this AP report for a sense of the scale of the attack.)  Facts are still emerging, but the consensus is that Yau Yau and the Murle youth were involved.

Such insecurity has lead to people in the more vulnerable border regions fleeing their homes.  Combined with the shortages of food and water that many are experiencing and there are growing numbers of Internally Displaced People (IDPs).  Stripped of their traditional social support structures and coping mechanisms, these people are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and disease.

Situated at the only bridge across the main – dirt – road across the state, Pathai is one such destination.  Offering a market, the possibility of work, proximity to water and relative security, thousands of IDPs have arrived in the past month, putting pressure on the already strained resources of the host community, and conditions are deteriorating rapidly.

Last week our WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) and Nutrition teams carried out a rapid needs assessment, and the findings were not good.  37.4% of the children were found to be malnourished, with another 35% at risk of malnutrition.  The World Health Organisation’s threshold for a nutrition emergency is 15%, which makes the severity of the situation very clear indeed.  Without rapid intervention, these levels of malnutrition, combined with the lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities and an almost complete absence of healthcare, means that loss of life cannot be far away.  And this is only the beginning of the hunger gap.

On Friday we shared the results of the report with the other NGOs active in Uror County, discussed the appropriate interventions and divided out responsibility for the different sectors between us.  We shall be leading on WASH and Nutrition, and working alongside Care International to provide Non Food Items (NFIs) – mosquito nets, blankets, cooking utensils and other such essentials.  Another NGO are carrying out a Food For Work programme, employing the recent arrivals to repair the flood-battered road, which is essential if we are to get supplies through, while UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) are sourcing food to distribute through the World Food Programme.

The final step in the process was to get a more accurate picture of the number of arrivals, which we attempted on Saturday.  The process was rushed and the organisation somewhat lacklustre, while the sheer amount of languages involved lead to crossed wires about who was meant to be being registered.  I’m not all that confident in the accuracy of our findings, but they’re a start.

But this is humanitarian aid.  It is messy and improvised, simultaneously hurried and too slow, conspicuous for both guesswork and bureaucracy.  Marked by contradiction, yes, but it lessens human suffering and it saves lives.



One thought on “The Bridge on the River Pathai

  1. This was a fascinating and informative read. I cannot get over the scale of that attack. I’m writing this from a newsroom in Belrin. It ‘s 1 o’clock in the morning. This is not the kind of news darting high up on the wire bulletins. That’s why on-the-ground info and writing from people like you is so invaluable. Keep up the good work, James x

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