JUBA, South Sudan — Toddlers tottering in the dust, elderly men sitting in the shade to escape the sapping heat, clustering flies, the drifting smoke of cooking fires, and the sour smell of far too many people crowded into a small space.
If things are bad now at the displaced persons camp near the main U.N. peacekeeping base in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, they'll soon be much worse.
The rains are coming. By April or May they'll bring malaria, mud, perhaps cholera, and make life in these camps even more miserable.
Toby Lanzer, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, launched an appeal Tuesday in Juba for $1.27 billion by June. Three million people face severe hunger, after ethnic fighting caused 865,000 to flee their homes, while about 60% of the population, or 7 million people, face some threat of hunger.
"When you combine awful overcrowding with tremendous heat and no space to build more latrines, we are really facing an impending disaster," he said, describing conditions on peacekeeping bases.
But when Lanzer hits the phones and flies in to talk to leaders in donor capitals, knocking on doors, pleading for funds, he will face tough competition. The South Sudan appeal comes a day after the U.N. launched a $2-billion campaign for Africa's famine-threatened Sahel region, where 2.5 million people need emergency food assistance.
And that's after Syria and the Central African Republic, where two more grim humanitarian catastrophes are unfolding relentlessly.
A little more than two weeks ago, the U.N. launched its largest appeal, for $6.5 billion for those hit by the Syrian crisis. A $551-million humanitarian appeal for the Central African Republic sparked little donor interest: Just $60 million has been pledged, the U.N. said last week. Last year's Sahel appeal fell short by 40%.
South Sudan has always punched above its weight in terms of donor sympathy. It is the world's youngest country, having fought a bloody 22-year civil war for independence from Sudan. That led to a peace deal in 2005, joyful independence in 2011 and a series of shaky missteps since.
One of the most glaring was its economically suicidal move in 2012 to shut down oil production because of a squabble with Sudan over oil transit fees. The shutdown, which lasted more than a year, cost South Sudan 98% of its budget revenue, plunging the country into debt and making it impossible to deliver better health and education services, especially in rural areas.
When Lanzer flies around the globe stumping for aid, he carries with him the stories of people such as the old man he met a few days ago who had walked more than 120 miles south from Jonglei state to Juba to flee the violence.
"Elderly. Poor. Frail. And very tired," Lanzer described him. "He said he just could not walk any further. There are countless stories like this."
Fighting, triggered by a power struggle between two main rivals in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement, President Salva Kiir and the deputy he fired, Riek Machar, has killed 10,000 people.
Malakal, a regional capital in the north, was a ghost town this week, its markets looted, the skeletal hulks of burned houses everywhere. Banks, shops, houses and humanitarian warehouses had been looted. The litter left behind was strewn like confetti on the streets.
The town was a microcosm of the country's destruction. In other towns such as Bor and Bentiu, the streets were just as grim, according to reports.
Those in the camps endure long hours of boredom, frustration and discomfort — and, at times, fear. Shots were fired into the main U.N. base in Juba recently and a grenade was thrown over the wall, according to U.N. officials.
The memories of massacres are raw.
"Many people were killed in front of us; that's why we ran away," said Okeng Robert, 30, a student sheltered under a flimsy roof of sacks in the camp at the Malakal U.N. peacekeeping base. "They were killing even small children. They were shot and beaten with sticks. I saw lots of bodies."
Said another man at the camp, 40-year-old Arkangelo Bobono: "They were raping girls of 13 or 14, and after they raped them, they killed them."
The U.N. peacekeeping force is hosting 27,000 people at the main Juba base, but 90% of South Sudan's displaced people live in more precarious conditions, some hiding in the bush, others in camps outside U.N. bases.
The U.N. appeal comes after Kiir last month accused peacekeepers of trying to run a "parallel government" and one of his ministers said South Sudan was "at war" with the United Nations. The government has since softened its rhetoric.
But representatives of humanitarian agencies, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions for their organizations, said the South Sudanese government had expressed sharp dissatisfaction with international agencies' policy of neutrality and the necessity to deal with both government and rebels on a daily basis to secure access to all areas.
The appeal also follows the looting of 4,700 tons of World Food Program aid from warehouses around the country, by both sides as well as civilians, some of them desperate, according to U.N. officials.
In the bases, the U.N. is having to deal with a humanitarian catastrophe that went from zero to more than 800,000 displaced people in six weeks.
"We've been playing catch-up," said Lanzer. "When there's enough water and latrines for 10,000 people, the number's gone up to 15,000. When there's enough for 15,000, the number's gone up to 20,000."
By Tuesday, 300 more latrines were needed.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times