‘They were shot by soldiers coming home from school’

The Government has pledged an extra €2m to assist South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, following a renewed intensity of violence there.

NGOs and civilians have been bracing themselves for the outbreak, following a temporary lull in hostilities; triggered only because of difficulties in mobilising militants and troops during the country’s heavy rainy season.

Minister of state Seán Sherlock made the announcement in Ethiopia during President Michael D Higgins’ three-week State visit to Africa which started on Sunday, taking in Malawi and South Africa also.

A number of Irish aid agencies have been assisting the humanitarian effort in South Sudan and Ethiopia; President Higgins yesterday visited programmes run by Goal and Concern on the Ethiopian border with South Sudan.

“I just want to say how proud I am of the Irish state assistance; and agencies such as Goal and Concern and other NGOs that have stepped into the breach – the people of Ireland can be very proud of the volunteers, of people who are here giving their skills, and of all Irish people who are assisting the NGOs in every way”, said President Higgins at a refugee camp in Gambella.

“The Irish Government has stayed — even in contracted economic times — within its aid commitment”, this and “the presence of Irish NGOs” including Trocaire and Oxfam Ireland, as well as the peacekeeping missions abroad, make up the “core elements of Ireland’s reputation”.

Ethiopia is on track to receive €136m from Ireland over the next five years; “you couldn’t be spending it better”, said President Higgins.

“The staff is doing work that I would only describe as heroic.”

More than 1.7m people have been displaced from their homes in the world’s newest state, with over 190,000 fleeing to nearby Ethiopia as a result of a conflict which is now reaching civil war proportions.

President Higgins called for more countries to increase their commitment to South Sudan’s growing humanitarian crisis.

“These are our fellow citizens and our fellow children of the planet,” he said. “I appeal to governments to increase their assistance to the region.”

Fighting broke out in South Sudan on December 15, 2013, after deep political tensions came to a head between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kir and deposed prime minister Riek Machar. Within hours, the dispute broke down along ethnic lines among the two main tribes — Dinka and Nuer — with massacres taking place on the streets of the capitals Juba and other parts of the country.

Nyakuma Keaka, 30, from Malakal City — a flash point for much of this year’s violence — fled to Ethiopia with her 3-year-old daughter after witnessing the killing of her other three children.

“I saw them being shot by Dinka soldiers,” she said. “They were coming home from school. When they tried to come home, they were shot on the street.”

“I saw so many people killed, shot. They even burned some people.

“All I could do was get to the border with my daughter, there was nothing I could do; their bodies are still there, in our village in Malakal. Only God knows now what to do.”

The government of Addis Ababa is commended for its role in hosting peace talks between Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, although attempts on a meaningful ceasefire or resolution have proved fruitless.

Ethiopia’s poor human rights record and severe clampdown on opposition groups, human rights activists, and journalists is often absent from the narrative in discussing its progress from a famine-stricken state in the 1970s and 80s.

Laws that bar foreign NGOs from addressing fundamental human rights concerns were imposed in 2009. The Charities and Societies Proclamation bars work on advocacy around the rights of women and children, as well as the area of ‘good governance’.

Earlier in the week, President Higgins raised the issue of human rights in Ethiopia and Africa in general, with president Mulatu Teshome and prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

“I had an opportunity of discussing human rights with the president and prime minister, human rights in Africa generally” said President Higgins, whose meetings also involved the signing of three bilateral agreements on taxation, development, and transport.

“We discussed how there were essential, basic rights of the person, which included rights of freedom,” he said. “We discussed it in terms of acts of privacy, in relation to sexual rights.

“We discussed it [human rights] in relation to what it meant when a country was in transition from authoritarian systems – something we’d know about ourselves.

“I also explicitly raised the question of the freedom to criticise and the issue of journalist’s freedoms.”


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