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Burnt home in Leer County, South Sudan

Dozens of people killed and injured as violence surges in Leer County

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  • MSF staff member shot and killed in latest violence in Leer County.
  • Numerous people killed and thousands displaced due to the fighting. 
  • MSF calls on all armed groups to respect international humanitarian law and immediately cease targeting civilians and health facilities.

The latest violence in Leer County, South Sudan, has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, including a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff member. This is the second MSF staff member who has been killed in Leer due to extreme violence since December 2021. 

Peter Mathor Tap had been working with MSF in Leer since 2007, initially as senior department supervisor at the former MSF hospital, and more recently as a nursing care provider in one of our community-based healthcare (CBHC) facilities. During the fighting on 10 April, Peter was shot and killed while he was off duty. As a child, Peter had suffered from polio, which left him with a disability and required him to use a stick to walk. This affected Peter’s ability to run away when the armed aggressors reached the area where he lived. 

“We are shocked and profoundly saddened by the tragic death of our colleague Peter. We send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends,” says Federica Franco, MSF head of mission for South Sudan. “We strongly condemn the indiscriminate violence being carried out by armed groups who have killed and injured many innocent people in Leer, including those most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.” 

We were fleeing for our lives. People were slaughtered, including mothers and young children. Nyadeng*, an elderly female resident of Adok

Since the latest fighting began, the MSF clinic in Leer town has received more than 30 patients with gunshot wounds, as well as several other trauma victims, including survivors of sexual violence. With the insecurity resulting in the evacuation of several humanitarian organisations in Leer, the MSF clinic has remained one of the few fully functioning healthcare facilities in the entire county, and the only one providing advanced emergency care. 

Initial assessments report of wide-scale destruction, notably in Adok, Pilleny, Thonyor and Touchria, where numerous people were killed, homes set on fire and properties looted. As a result, thousands of people have been forcibly displaced, including MSF staff. Those displaced are too scared to return home, and with many of them having lost all their belongings, they have little to return to. Many people have sought refuge in the swamps, where they are at risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea, as well as malaria

“They [the attackers] were shooting and everyone ran to the swamp area because we were fleeing for our lives. People were slaughtered, including mothers and young children,” says Nyadeng*, an elderly female resident of Adok. “When we came out, we found the area had been burnt, they took the goats, cattle and also looted [property].”

Burnt down village in Leer County, South Sudan.
During the latest attacks in Leer County, armed groups destroyed villages; burning down and looting properties of both residents and aid organisations. South Sudan, 17 April, 2022. 

These are challenging times for the people of Leer, who have previously experienced an endless cycle of violence and multiple displacement. Leer was one of the counties most affected during the 2013-2018 civil war, where brutal fighting took a huge toll on the community. The latest spate of attacks over the past few months has led to further death, destruction and forced displacement, as well as hindered access to aid – exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation.  

“We were hiding in the bush for five days. People are staying outside without shelter. They are suffering because they don’t have food,” says John*, MSF staff member among the people displaced in Leer. “The situation is terrible. The people here need more support.” 

The violence has also impeded the provision of vital medical services to the affected communities. Of the six CBHC facilities MSF operates in Leer County, three are now non-functional, as one facility was partially destroyed and two others were looted during the latest attacks. Despite this, we are continuing to ensure people can access much-needed medical care. The MSF clinic in Leer town and the three remaining CBHCs continue to operate. Our teams have also begun conducting mobile clinics to the main displacement sites. 

“The level of atrocities witnessed, the persisting fear of being attacked, and the widespread destruction of medical facilities are severely affecting access to healthcare and even health-seeking behaviours, as people are reluctant to travel to search for treatment,” says Franco. “Thousands of people displaced are in urgent need of humanitarian aid and medical care. We call on all armed groups to respect international humanitarian law and immediately cease targeting civilians and health facilities.”

*Names changed to protect identity. 

MSF started working in Leer, Unity, in 1989 in response to a serious outbreak of kala-azar among displaced people. Tuberculosis treatment was added to the kala-azar programmes in 1993. Following the eruption of the civil war, MSF’s hospital in Leer was looted, burnt and completely destroyed in 2014. Today we remain one of the few organisations providing medical care to the people of Leer. Our teams are responding to people who are displaced and affected by the violence with decentralised general healthcare services in Leer town, including emergency care, basic emergency obstetric and newborn care, and sexual and gender-based violence care, as well as community-based healthcare in hard-to-reach locations.

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Project Update 24 August 2022