Circling above Ras-Olo in the early morning light, those on-board the United Nations helicopter can’t help but notice the huge potential of the land below.
It is lush, fertile, and bursting with newly planted crops which are flourishing in the midst of the rainy season. Once harvested, these crops should provide food and income, not only, to this village but to communities across the Western Equatorian region of South Sudan.
The question is whether local farmers will ever get the chance to realize the potential of these crops given ongoing insecurity in the area, including attacks and harassment by armed groups.
After touching down, a team of peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan begin their patrol which aims to deter violence by establishing a protective presence as well as to assess the humanitarian and security situation more broadly.
Alongside them are members of the Ceasefire Transitional Security Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (CTSAMVM) who are responsible for monitoring and reporting on violations of the ceasefire signed by warring parties in 2018.
They hear first-hand from villagers about the constant violence that has forced many to flee into the bush with their families, leaving their homes and crops untended.
“We are staying here but facing a lot of insecurity,” says Joice Levi, a medical worker at the Ras-Olo Primary Health Care Center. “Sometimes the armed groups come and abduct youths, this then escalates war, and we are always on run.”
Local women are suffering the most during this conflict, facing harassment, physical and sexual violence as well as abduction.
Mary (not her real name) was kidnapped during one of the armed assaults on the village. Her parents were taken too. They were tortured and then released. Mary was held captive for several days and forced to cook and fetch water for the armed group.
“They took me at around 1:00 am midnight,” says Mary. “I spent about three days with them in the bush. They used to torture us. Whenever we were seated, they tied us down. When it was time to move, they untied our hands.”
The communities in Ras-Olo feel like they are stuck in a cycle of violence with no idea of what tomorrow might bring. Youth live in constant fear of being abducted and forcibly recruited into the military.
Many vehicles are also being burned in road ambushes which is making it almost impossible to get much-needed supplies into the area. The Primary Health Care Centre has no medicine and a lack of trained health workers to treat patients, particularly those needing maternal health care.
“The medical supplies usually come from Juba and Maridi but, with the insecurity, vehicles are being burned on the road, so they can’t deliver us the medicines we need,” says Joice Levi.
UNMISS and CTSAMVM are investigating the situation and will continue to monitor security in the area. Their priority is to protect civilians and to support peacebuilding so that the people of Ras-Olo and Western Equatoria finally get to enjoy the benefits of their hard labour on the land.