Martin Bell returned today from Southern Sudan, where he completed an eight-day visit of the country with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow.

Mr Bell is the UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies and a former war correspondent for the BBC. He and Ms Farrow's visit to the country came during a historic moment, just two months after the referendum to declare Southern Sudan's independence from the north.

The referendum was part of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end the long war between the north and south, which has claimed over two million lives in two decades.

During the visit, Mr Bell and Ms Farrow witnessed the devastating impact on the lives of women and children from attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group operating in Western Equatoria.

"We came here at what should be such a hopeful time for everyone in Southern Sudan," said Ms Farrow. "But the lives of children along the border areas continue to be torn apart by violence – at times with unimaginable brutality. The women and children I spoke to were living in terror – afraid to go to their fields for food, afraid to go to school or even remain in their homes. They told me that what they want and need most is safety and protection."  

The civil war has crippled Sudan's infrastructure, leaving thousands of children without access to schools, basic health care, and clean water. In Southern Sudan, one out of every 7 children dies before their fifth birthday. Only about 10% of children are fully vaccinated, and less than 50% of all children receive 5 years of primary education.

In Western Equatorial State, Mr Bell and Ms Farrow visited a transit centre for children rescued from the LRA, and a UNICEF-supported health centre.

"In all my ten years with UNICEF, I have never found its work more necessary than in Southern Sudan," said Mr Bell. "The new country's future lies in its children and UNICEF is concentrating its efforts on changing their lives for the better."

Hundreds of thousands of Southern Sudanese travelled from the north to the south to vote in the referendum on 9 January. Voters called overwhelmingly for secession, with Southern Sudan due to become independent on July 9.

UNICEF believes that sustainable peace is the only viable path for improved quality of life, increased prosperity, growth and development for the people of Southern Sudan.

This was Ms Farrow's third trip to Southern Sudan. "The people of Southern Sudan have displayed extraordinary courage and resilience in the long years of violence," she said. "At this critical time they need and deserve help."

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In Southern Sudan, a baby cries as a health worker prepares to administer a tuberculosis vaccination at the UNICEF- supported Kotor Health Clinic in Juba © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0951/Michael Kavanagh
In June 2009 in Southern Sudan, a baby cries as a health worker prepares to administer a tuberculosis vaccination at the UNICEF- supported Kotor Health Clinic in Juba. UNICEF is sponsoring an immunization campaign at the clinic for infants, children and pregnant and lactating women.© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0951/Michael Kavanagh