United Nations peacekeepers and officials struggled to contain two ongoing crises in Africa as the New Year began. Hastily arranged peace talks to end the sudden conflict in South Sudan began in Ethiopia as the world’s newest nation sank deeper into a de facto civil war. Meanwhile, in the neighboring Central African Republic, tension continued to rise between majority Christians and minority Muslims.
In South Sudan, at least 1,000 people have died and 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of weeks of often intense fighting between political supporters of President Salva Kiir and South Sudan’s ousted vice president, Riek Machar. The violence, which flared out of a political struggle between the two leaders within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, has ignited ethnic tensions between the supporters of both men. President Kiir is a member of South Sudan’s Dinka tribe and Machar is a member of the Nuer tribe. President Kiir has declared a state of emergency for the areas that have fallen under rebel control, including the central city, Bor.
As the violence in South Sudan escalates and tens of thousands of civilians take refuge in U.N. compounds around the country, children are in grave danger, according to a report from Unicef. “We are especially worried about those in and around Bor, in Jonglei State, where the fighting has recently been heaviest,” Unicef’s representative in South Sudan, Iyorlumun Uhaa, said. “There are desperate shortages of food and clean water at the U.N. compound there and the lack of sanitation facilities poses a high risk of disease. Children, always among the most vulnerable in conflict, are spending their days without shelter in the intense heat and sun and sleeping in the open during the cold nights.”
The United Nations was also busy attempting to restore peace in the Central African Republic. Despite the intervention of French and African troops, the situation remains precarious. “The Central African Republic remains on the verge of a war with religious aspects,” warned Dieudonné Nzapalainga, archbishop of Bangui, and Omar Kobine Layama, imam of the Central African capital, in a joint appeal.
“Nearly half the population desperately need aid, and about 40,000 people have taken refuge at Bangui airport where they are living without shelter or toilet facilities,” the two religious leaders said. They called on the United Nations to deploy a peacekeeping force “with the utmost urgency.”
Persistent violence in C.A.R. between Christian militias and the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group that overthrew President François Bozizé in March has forced one-fifth of the population to flee their homes. According to the most recent U.N. estimates, the number of internally displaced people in Bangui alone has risen since Dec. 5 to some 513,000 people—half the capital city’s residents.
Unicef reports that in the ongoing conflict that has gripped Bangui attacks against children reached a new extreme, with at least two children beheaded and one of them mutilated. “We are witnessing unprecedented levels of violence against children. More and more children are being recruited into armed groups, and they are also being directly targeted in atrocious revenge attacks,” said Souleymane Diabate, Unicef Representative in C.A.R.
“The situation is very chaotic and worsening all the time,” said Bishop Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary-general of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference. “All our churches and parishes are inundated with displaced people,” he said. “Whole districts of Bangui are deserted, while even those in the relative safety of Catholic centers are living in total fear,” he said.