One out of four children die before their fifth birthday in South Sudan. (Image courtesy of Kids Alive)
South Sudan (MNN) ― Unrest in South Sudan has everyone on edge.
Clashes between tribal groups, rising humanitarian needs, and an outbreak of Hepatitis E have been keeping the fledgling nation in international headlines.
"People are trying to go about their lives, but those tensions remain just below the surface," says Matt Parker of Kids Alive International. Kids Alive works in Wau, one of South Sudan's northwestern cities, and Parker says there's been a lot of conflict recently.
"Over the past few weeks, we've seen a number of instances where people have had to leave their homes, or people have been caught up in fighting," he says.
Violence reached a breaking point in Pibor last week when 2,000 villagers fled to a U.N. base for safety. According to Reuters, fighting between South Sudanese soldiers and the bodyguards of a former rebel commander erupted when a soldier's hand grenades went off.
Parker says tribal tensions in Wau peaked in late December, forcing staff and 14 children at the ministry's Good Shepherd home to remain indoors.
"They could hear gunshots, but generally they've stayed safe and everyone is well," states Parker.
Despite reassurance from Kids Alive staff, the familiar sound of gunfire struck a little too close to home for many children.
"These kids have known fear, and they've known what it is like to suffer," he explains. "Our staff had to work very closely with the kids to ensure that they remained calm."
Parker says times like these serve to draw children closer to the Prince of Peace: Jesus Christ.
"Kids are asking questions; they're involved in talking and praying about the situation," states Parker. "One of the core features of our program is sharing the Gospel message with our children: encouraging them to follow Christ, to grow in their knowledge and understanding of Him."
Following weeks of unrest, things are starting to settle down in Wau -- at least for now.
"The situation is a little bit calmer; the kids have been able to go back to school," says Parker. "But it was a difficult time for them."
It's not just ethnic fighting that has South Sudan up in arms. Refugee camps are packed, and some 300 refugees are arriving in South Sudan daily, according to the UNCHR. They're building a new refugee camp in Ajuong to try and manage further inflows. It might help stop the spread of disease, too.
The UNHCR says four refugee camps near the border with Sudan have noted a surge in Hepatitis E cases. Since July, the disease has infected over 3,000 people and led to 69 deaths. Health officials say the influx of new arrivals and unsanitary conditions in refugee camps could be accelerating the rate of infection.
Speaking of Sudan, this northernly neighbor keeps stalling in resolution talks over the Abyei border region. It's been a source of contention between the divorced Sudans for years, with ethnic groups from each region holding a vested interest in the land. A deadlock arose over the demilitarized zone and representation on the Abyei Legislative Council during last week's talks between South Sudan's President, Salva Kiir, and Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir.
In the midst of such turmoil, what can you do to help?
Pray for "peace between different tribes, peace between Sudan and South Sudan, and for long-term solutions to be found to some of the underlying problems in the country," says Parker.
"Pray for continued funding so that we can construct more buildings and start more programs to help orphans and vulnerable children in this area."