SOS Children's Villages is very concerned about the safety of the childern in South Sudan - Photo: Patrick Wittmann
The situation in Malakal in South Sudan has deteriorated significantly over the last few days. On Saturday 12 March, rebels gained access to the SOS Children's Village, where heavy fighting broke out between them and soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
The rebels took cover in one of the family houses and were surrounded by SPLA soldiers and police. They even took children and SOS mothers hostage, using them briefly as human shields. Meanwhile, the director of SOS Children's Villages Sudan, Ali Mahdi tried from Khartoum to get South Sudanese government representatives and the UNMIS (UN Mission in Sudan) involved in extracting the children and staff from the village and ensuring their safety.
The 103 children and the co-workers were successfully evacuated from the village later on Saturday and put up in a hotel at a safe distance from any ongoing fighting. The hotel is in close proximity to the Nile, which could facilitate an evacuation via the river in case the airport is closed when more fighting makes leaving Malakal altogether unavoidable. At present, the airport is already closed, along with banks and markets. Ministers of the South Sudanese government and the governor of the Upper Nile State (of which Malakal is the capital) weighed in personally on behalf of the children and are making sure the children have everything they need.
The SOS families and staff had to leave all their belongings behind as they fled the village. Allegedly, the SPLA troops were planning the destruction of the SOS family house the rebels had taken cover in to force their surrender. The situation is very unclear and no SOS co-worker will return to the SOS Children's Village unless his or her safety can be guaranteed.
Ali Mahdi succeeded in reaching the village director on the phone yesterday. Fighting on the village grounds continued on Sunday. All children and staff are safe and have been provided with basic food. Should the fighting continue, temporary quarters will be rented in a safe area of the town. If necessary, an evacuation to Juba in the far South of the country would be possible.
Children who took refuge at the SOS Children's Village in Malakal in February - Photo: SOS Archives
This attack on Malakal clearly marks an escalation in clashes between the south's army and militias which has aroused fears over the stability of the region in the countdown to its secession, due on July 9. Tribal elements are very pregnant in these clashes. The rebels who raided Malakal this weekend are led by the renegade militia once part of the SPLM movement - the political wing of the SPLA - and part of the largest ethnic groups in southern Sudan, who felt marginalised particularly in terms of unemployment and contested the last April governorship elections of neighbouring Jonglei state.
Celebrations of the results of the referendum at the SOS Children’s Village Malakal were marred by a series of outbreaks of violence, namely in Malakal and other parts of Upper Nile. In early February, loyalists of another group of rebels refused to surrender their heavy weapons. Around 60 people were killed in the fighting that ensued in Malakal and 150 families took refuge for a couple of days inside the village. SOS Children’s Village Malakal was busy helping the families as many suffered from the looting of their homes.
Situation update, 15 March 2011
According to latest reports, the military operations between rebels and SPLA soldiers at the SOS Children’s Village in Malakal have ceased. Some of the rebels were allegedly killed inside the village.
The airport and the banks remain closed. Ali Mahdi, director of SOS Children's Villages in Sudan, and Alwock Dok, village director of Malakal, are in constant contact with authorities and preparing measures to make absolutely sure that the SOS Children’s Village and its surroundings are safe, that the village compound is completely free of any weapons and unexploded duds, and that possible damages are assessed. Only when the safety and protection of the 103 children and staff can be guaranteed, will they return to their homes.