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Nairobi, 11 February 2016 –"I've lived through three decades of war and I've never experienced as much violence as I did a few weeks ago," said South Sudanese Sister Elizabeth Waraga, Jesuit Refugee Service Education Coordinator working in Yambio, South Sudan. Last month heavy gun fire between government and opposition forces rained on the small South Sudanese town of Yambio and Sister Elizabeth and her colleagues hid for hours.
"Yambio is still struggling to recover from January's fateful violence. The population is living in fear and ready to run at any time. Tensions are high and fuel distribution centres and commercial banks are closed. All roads in and out of the main town are controlled by armed groups so many people are unable to move. In recent days, members of the local population who are fearful of returning home sought refuge at neighbouring humanitarian compounds. Furthermore, prices of food and oil have substantially increased, increasing devastation on this impoverished community," said Aidan Azairwe, JRS Yambio Project Director.
Since December 2015, 200 homes have been burnt down in just one neighbourhood of Yambio county and 15,000 people are internally displaced. Humanitarian agencies have joined together with the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission to deliver basic necessities to affected families.
As the crisis in South Sudan enters its third year, the likelihood of peace seems further away than ever. Although government and opposition forces signed a peace accord last year, a new plan to divide the country into a further 28 states and continued violations of the agreement have perpetuated further violence into 2016. Furthermore, both armed groups continue to scale up their weapon acquisition, leading to the "expansion of war," according to a recent African Union report.
The UN has said multiple armed groups are at fault for atrocious violence toward civilians, including the burning of villages, destruction of crops, sexual abuse and child conscription. More than 2.3 million people have been displaced since the conflict began in December 2013.
What used to be a safe haven for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnees, Yambio has now been added to the list of the nation's conflict zones. The returnees of the host community have fled and new internally displaced persons have arrived. JRS teams on the ground in Yambio have reported that the atrocities reported by the UN mirror their personal experiences.
"Throughout December and into January, we've seen homes burnt down and looted and thousands of people fleeing violence at home. We've heard reports of human rights abuses and especially sexual violence," said Aidan.
"We're all terrified to move, and the threat of sexual violence is more prevalent than ever – armed groups have committed sexual violence everywhere, even invading churches to violate women of all ages. Every night we're drummed with sounds of guns and some days food is non-existent. I wonder what is the future for these young people in South Sudan?" added Elizabeth.
JRS has helped the younger generation in South Sudan to gain access to education for decades. The organisation established itself in Yambio after years of providing education to IDPs throughout South Sudan during Sudan's second civil war. They hoped to accompany returnees as they moved home, but were instead met with the present crisis which, according to most, has had even more dire consequences for civilians than the previous conflict.
"I'm really traumatised by what is happening here. It wasn't this horrible during the war with Sudan. Civilians and the Church were protected and respected by all factions, not like today," said Elizabeth.
Due to this increasing insecurity, lack of protection, and limited movement, JRS and other humanitarian agencies are struggling to provide an adequate response, but they persevere nonetheless.
In 2015, JRS Yambio served more than 4,000 people through teacher trainings, scholarships for girls and improving school infrastructure. Throughout the year, enrolment in local secondary schools supported by JRS increased by 80 percent and enrolment of girls by 35 percent.
In 2016, JRS hopes to continue these projects and begin to offer vocational skills training courses to more than 1,300 new students. Schools in Yambio opened on Monday, but enrolment is low. Many students, Elizabeth fears, are seeking refuge far away.
"JRS support for teacher training is very important even in the midst of this chaotic conflict. Teachers here lack skills, but many people, especially girls, want to study and learn. They trust JRS will keep them in school. We hope peace will come so kids can reach their classes," added Elizabeth.
Like Elizabeth, JRS believes education must remain a priority even amidst the most severe crises.
"We know it is a tool for peace and long-term development. It is also a basic human right and allows people to improve their standard of life no matter where they end up," said Aidan.
JRS is also responding to the crisis in South Sudan with education initiatives for Sudanese refugees and South Sudanese IDPs and host community members in Maban county, Upper Nile. JRS prioritises education for South Sudanese refugees in exile, as well.
In Kampala, Uganda JRS offers emergency assistance, along with computer training, English courses, and other forms of education to South Sudanese new arrivals. In northern Uganda where 87 new South Sudanese refugees arrive daily, JRS plans to initiate an education project in 2016.
In Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, JRS provides counselling and hosts those in need of extra protection from abuse and sexual violence in addition to opening a learning centre in a new area of the camp housing new arrivals from South Sudan.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia JRS served more than 400 South Sudanese new arrivals during the last six months of 2015 with emergency financial assistance and food as well as with medical referrals and counselling for those who have suffered traumatic experiences.
As levels of displacement from the conflict in South Sudan reach unprecedented levels, the drive of refugees to learn and build a better future continues, but an end to violence is vital to ensure that the younger generation can really prosper. In Yambio, peace talks among local forces are now underway, but JRS urges that sustained, long-term peace will only come from concerted action and compromise from the highest leadership in South Sudan.