Around 120 Nuer people in South Sudan have been refused flights to better health facilities in the capital Juba, amid concerns the government could not assure their safety.
Former South Sudan soldier Solomon Kangach languishes in an overcrowded United Nations camp with an infected gunshot wound to the leg. For more than a month he has needed urgent medical care in the capital Juba but, considered an enemy combatant, the government has not allowed him to fly there.
Kangach, 34 years, defected from South Sudan’s army, known as the SPLA, when fighting broke out in mid-December. In January he was shot in Padak when the government launched a major offensive to take control of Jonglei state and recapture its centre Bor.
“My brothers brought me to Bor for treatment. Two bones are broken,” he said pointing to a crude splint made of wood and mangy bandages.
“I was given a tablet when I saw the doctor. I drink water. When you see the leg, it is not going well. I have been using a traditional doctor. This helps.”
Kangach and two other Nuers SBS spoke to, all sheltering in the UN’s ‘Protection of Civilian’ site, did not get evacuated to better health facilities because the government did not provide “protection assurance” for their flights.
“I saw my friends die in the fighting but I saw wounded friends die because they did not get proper treatment,” Kangach said.
But to complicate the situation even further and to highlight how deep the tribal roots are in this conflict Kangach and other wounded Nuers now don’t want to travel for treatment outside the UN camp in Bor.
“In Juba I am fearing for Dinka there, because they don’t care to kill somebody in the hospital,” he said.
Since the beginning of South Sudan’s crisis Bor town has changed hands four times between the SPLA and rebels now calling themselves ‘SPLA in Opposition’.
At the height of the conflict 17,000 people sought refuge in the UN’s camp. Now there are approximately 5,000 people, mostly Nuer.
Despite relative calm, Bor remains volatile. Several counties in Jonglei’s north are still controlled by rebels.
Korean soldiers attached to the UN run the only health facility after tit-for-tat fighting saw Bor hospital destroyed and patients killed in their beds. Bor’s St Andrews church was scene to 13 female church workers slaughtered when rebels over ran their compound.
Major Yeun-Dae Kim, head of the Korean medical team in Bor, said in January they treated 200 people for gun shot wounds and 80 were evacuated.
“There were so many causalities that couldn’t have necessary treatment,” he said.
General surgeon Jinuk Na, one of five Korean doctors, said their health facility is designed to treat minor injuries for fellow soldiers as part of the UN mission. It is not equipped to serious injuries.
“We were supposed to evacuate people with gun shot wounds to Juba but the government troops didn’t allow,” he said.
Dr Na could not confirm if any patients died as a result of their flight being stopped.
“Most of them healed without operation but there will be a functional problem. Some guy who needs an operation has gangrene in his leg, he now can not have an operation,” he said.
UN Mission In South Sudan spokeswoman Ariane Quentier said according to the principles of international humanitarian law combatants are evacuated for medical treatment when there is “a guarantee of safety”.
“When the mission assessed that the safety guarantee was not provided, we could not transport combatants,” she said.
A spokesman for the South Sudan military, Brig. Gen. Malaak Ayuen said army orders are for all wounded, regardless of side, to be treated properly.
“I have not heard the wounded were stopped from flights. Usually wounded rebels go to the UN and then taken to Juba if needs be. I not aware rebels were stopped."
“Once a soldier is wounded he becomes a civilian or prisoner of war. We often get the International Committee Red Cross (ICRC) to take them elsewhere if they are not safe,” he said.
South Sudan’s government has repeatedly played down the ethnic dimension to this conflict, blaming rebels from the Nuer tribe as being responsible for numerous atrocities.
But according to recent reports by the UN and Human Rights Watch violations have been carried out by both sides, including Dinka that support president Salva Kiir.