Incongruous images showing soldiers wearing bright blue backpacks with the UNICEF logo front and center have been emerging from South Sudan. Since violence broke out in the world’s youngest nation in mid-December, the United Nations and other aid organizations' stockpiles of food and other supplies have been systematically looted by government forces, members of the armed opposition and even civilians. It is now clear that soldiers, many of them children, are carrying these backpacks into battle instead of school houses.
UNICEF said on Monday that it was “extremely concerned” over the looting of these school supplies and backpacks that were destined for children in the region. The agency deplored the prevalence of looting and urged both side to stop the thefts, thereby ensuring that supplies meant to give relief to the thousands of suffering citizens and children reach their intended recipients.
Since December, the World Food Programme, or WFP, has lost over 4,400 tonnes of food to looters. The U.N. reported that the stolen food could have fed 240,000 people for a month. Additionally, in incidents by both pro and anti-government forces, over 20 vehicles were stolen from U.N. bases. U.N. warehouses and storage facilities in Bor and Bentiu also suffered attacks. In a statement released by UNMISS, Hilde F. Johnson, the head of the U.N. mission said, “We call on the Government of the Republic of South Sudan to facilitate the work of UNMISS at this critical time, and fully respect the mutually agreed legal framework for the U.N.’s work in the country. This is of utmost importance for the operations of the Mission.”
Looting and systematic destruction of aid warehouses impede the ability for organizations to distribute supplies and put extreme stress on the already poor conditions of those that rely on the supplies for nutrition and survival. If looting persists, displaced populations could lose access to food, water, and sanitation facilities. UNICEF Spokesperson Sarah Crowe told AFP that, "such thefts display a complete disregard for the principle of protection of civilians and respect for humanitarian work."
While both sides agreed to a ceasefire on January 23rd, sporadic reports of fighting have continued to emerge. The Satellite Sentinel Project documented at least one clear violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement in Leer. Continued looting will limit humanitarian workers as they try to do their jobs. With an estimated 743,400 internally displaced civilians within South Sudan and over 3.7 million facing food insecurity, their life-saving assistance should not be hindered.
Photo: Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers wearing looted UNICEF children's backpacks walk along a road in Mathiang near Bor on January 31, 2014. (AFP Photo/Carl de Souza)