“Soldiers…sometimes killed those who were left behind. Even if you were sick or old.” When the chief of Pisak, a town in South Sudan’s Yei River state said this to me, he was concerned for the safety of five members of his community who were unable to flee from a March government operation against rebels in Yei because they were older or had disabilities.
During the operations, government soldiers shot at civilians, looted extensively, burned homes and crops, and chased thousands of people from their villages. While these are not unusual stories in South Sudan, the situation has been even worse for people at heightened risk.
Since the conflict broke out in December 2013, Human Rights Watch has documented the experiences of people with disabilities and older people who were unable to flee to safety, and killed, tortured, or burned alive in their homes by soldiers and rebels.
The humanitarian response in South Sudan has also often fallen short of being inclusive. Older people and people with disabilities have faced challenges accessing basic services, including food, shelter, sanitation, health, education, and earning a livelihood. Additionally, accessing psychosocial services for large portions of the population remains a challenge.
Displaced people in Yei survive by living with host families, or in abandoned shelters doing jobs like fetching water, baking, laying bricks for houses, and collecting and selling firewood. Among the displaced, older people and people with disabilities were facing even harsher difficulties accessing such services.
The experiences of persons with disabilities in armed conflicts have begun to be more widely acknowledged. The 2019 Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) expressed for the first time “serious concern about the dire situation of persons with disabilities in South Sudan.”
For the first time in more than a decade, the UN secretary-general’s 2019 report on protection of civilians documents the experiences of older people and people with disabilities in armed conflict, urging greater protections for those at heightened risk.
It is encouraging that the UN has committed to protect people with disabilities in armed conflict, including in South Sudan, and to ensure they are not left behind. But there is more to be done. Governments should make explicit calls for protection of people with disabilities and older people; UNMISS should undertake more data collection, monitoring and reporting of abuses; and aid groups should ensure meaningful participation of older people and people with disabilities in humanitarian response planning.