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South Sudan Faces Economic Devastation and Famine as Fighting Grows More Ferocious

The UN warned Friday that continued fighting between opposition forces and the South Sudanese government has led to "alarming gross" human rights violations.

by Kayla Ruble
May 23 2015, 2:40pm

Photo by Thomas Mukoya/AP

Fighting in South Sudan has grown more ferocious in recent weeks as the country veers toward economic devastation and widespread famine after a year and a half of civil conflict, with the UN warning of human rights violations in a dire assessment on Friday.

The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said that fighting between opposition forces aligned with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the South Sudanese government in past weeks has led to "alarming gross" international human rights violations that have taken a terrible toll on civilians.

"For more than 17 months, women, men, and children have been senselessly suffering through an entirely man-made catastrophe, living in the most inhumane conditions," Zeid said. "More than two million people have been robbed of their homes, their livelihoods, their security, having lost family members to death and forced recruitment."

The high commissioner said the worsening situation has created another 10,000 internally displaced people (IDP). Around 1.5 million people have been displaced across South Sudan since fighting began. According to Hussein, 1,600 people were seeking protection at a UN base in the Melut community of the country's Upper Nile state.

Zeid noted that the IDP in Sudan were already living in terrible conditions, and he expressed concern over how they would fair once the rainy season sets in. Earlier this week, four civilians were killed at the UN compound in Melut in a mortar bomb attack that left another eight injured.

Related: 'Pray It Rains Like Hell': Fighting Heats Up as South Sudan's Dry Season Winds Down

Zeid's statement comes just two days after the US Department of State condemned the escalating violence in South Sudan between the SPLA and Sudanese Gen. Johnson Olony's forces. In a statement on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called on both sides to halt offensive actions that violate a cessation of hostilities agreement signed in early 2014.

The country has been in the throes of civil war since December 2013, but the most recent set of clashes flared in March in the Upper Nile and Unity states, also the locations of the country's last operating oil fields. Over the weekend, the rebels — led by President Salva Kiir's former deputy Riek Machar — succeeded in gaining control of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile. Despite the victory, the pro-government forces managed to keep the opposition fighters from seizing oil fields.

'For more than 17 months, women, men, and children have been senselessly suffering through an entirely man-made catastrophe.'

Meanwhile, South Sudan's government blamed Sudan, their neighbor to the north, for backing the rebel group operating in the Upper Nile state. A spokesman for South Sudan's army told the Associated Press on Friday that the Sudanese government had offered weapons, ammunition, and other support. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

The UN's high commissioner specifically pointed to a surge in fighting on April 29, which has sparked killings, rapes, and abductions. Specifically, on Monday the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said dozens of children were killed, another 12 raped, and an unspecified number abducted in attacks believed to have been carried out by SPLA-affiliated groups. UNICEF estimates that there are some 13,000 children who have been recruited by both sides of the war, with the organization saying violence against children in recent weeks was occurring "frighteningly regularly."

Related: Slow Response Follows Forced Conscription of Hundreds of Child Soldiers in South Sudan

In addition to the human toll, the UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said the country was nearing an economic collapse, with a high probability the local currency will tank in the face of rising inflation rates, according to a report Friday in the Guardian.

"It's not only that South Sudan has some of the lowest human development indicators of anywhere. It's not only that you've had 17 months of pretty brutal violence. It's that we're also in the midst of economic stress, which — to be clear — is on the verge of economic collapse," Lanzer said.

According to Lanzer, the pending financial crisis will impact food security in the vulnerable nation. "That will add significant pressure to people who are trying to eke out a living, and it will certainly send some people who have managed to get by over the edge, and turn them to just about surviving. People will be spending 80-85 percent of what income they have on food," he explained.

In the wake of the recent violence, earlier this week the UN Security Council "reiterated its willingness to impose sanctions against those who threaten the peace, security, or stability" in South Sudan. According to the UN, humanitarian staff will travel to affected parts of the country in the coming days to evaluate the situation.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB