GENEVA (20 September 2017) - The Commission witnessed tens of thousands of South Sudanese women and children arriving in Ethiopia just last week, after walking in some cases for months to reach safety. Like hundreds of thousands of others civilians over the last year, they were subjected to collective punishment by government forces, based on ethnicity and their perceived support for the opposition.
“This is happening on such a massive scale that it’s hard to grapple with the numbers,” said the Commission’s Chairperson, Yasmin Sooka, “and it’s occurring all the time in such remote and hard to access places that it’s simply not being reported very much”.
UNHCR and the Ethiopian Government had to open a new camp this month in Nguennyiel to accommodate the influx of 30,000 South Sudanese mainly from Pagak where there’s been fighting recently. The Commission saw refugees so desperate to be registered that they started fighting in the queue, an elderly couple collapsed at the gate while starving children just tore open packets of high protein biscuits and devoured them. One woman said she’d walked nine months with a bullet in her leg, surviving off leaves and water, to reach the camp.
The Commission was especially struck by the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in the camp. Children described painful scenes, watching loved ones killed in attacks and friends and relatives drowning while crossing rivers and swamps. A young mother who couldn’t swim told us how her baby boy drowned as they tried to cross a swollen river. We met two young girls who fled after their father and brother were shot dead in an SPLA attack on their village. They were separated from their mother who may still be alive in another camp. On the journey to Ethiopia they watched their sister being raped and then killed. A total stranger walking with her own family took them under her wing, fed them and made sure they reached the refugee camp. Now ICRC’s reunification team are trying to find the girls’ mother. The Commission heard many stories like this of immense courage and generosity from strangers in the face of extraordinary adversity but despite this there remains a huge humanitarian need.
“Obviously the sheer scale of the millions of people now internally displaced or as refugees in neighbouring countries means the humanitarian situation is almost unmanageable,” said fellow commissioner Godfrey Musila, “Food rations are being cut in the camps in Ethiopia and Uganda because of lack of donor funds and everyone we met was complaining about the intense suffering and despair that causes”.
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* The Commission was established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 under resolution 31/20.
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