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Fear and Hope in South Sudan as Refugees Start to Cross Border Again
January 7, 2013
South Sudan 2012 © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
More than 170,000 people who fled violence in Sudan are living in refugee camps in South Sudan. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been assisting the refugees since November 2011, running field hospitals and providing supplies of clean drinking water and oral rehydration fluids.
Now that the floods caused by the rainy season are subsiding refugees are starting to cross the border again. In December 2012, around 370 refugees arrived at the border village of El Fuj, traveling in two groups and arriving a few days apart. This is a small number compared to last year, when 35,000 people crossed the border in the space of just three weeks. Time will tell if the numbers will increase.
While the camps in South Sudan provide relative safety, refugees living there face dire conditions. There are still shortages of clean water—at times, 40 percent of medical consultations carried out by MSF were related to diarrhea—and there are ongoing occurrences of Hepatitis E. In Batil Camp (which hosts around 35,000 refugees), mortality rates were more than double emergency thresholds in summer 2012, and more than a quarter of the children under the age of five were malnourished. Since September 2012, conditions have improved in many areas and mortality rates have dropped, but nutrition and food security are still serious concerns.
Fleeing Violence and Insecurity
The newly arrived refugees, members of the Ingessana ethnic group, bring with them stories of lives made desperate by ongoing violence, of the agony of having to leave loved ones behind, and of the difficult and dangerous journey to the border. “We left because of war,” said one 36-year-old mother. “For the last one-and-a-half years we have been bombed by the planes every day. We lived in the forest; there was no chance for school for the children, no health care or medicine. Food we got from the ground, but not corn. Water we would collect in the early mornings. This has happened all seasons.”
“Villages were burnt down,” recalled a 22-year-old woman who arrived with her husband and their four children, the youngest of whom was just 1 month old. “It was not safe anymore. We lived in fear. We did not want to leave but we could not stay. We traveled with our families; we had to leave some people behind who were not able to travel.”
Men described feeling as if they could be killed at any time and fearing that women and girls would be raped by invaders. An 18-year-old woman who traveled with her child to join her husband wept when she recalled having to leave her elderly parents behind, saying she did not know what would happen to them or who would be able to help them.
Another woman described how her 15-year-old son had died from a gunshot wound just before they left. Her youngest child, a baby girl, became sick on the journey and died shortly after they reached Jamam.
Days Walking with No Food
The refugees traveled for around eight days to reach El Fuj, mostly on foot and occasionally by tractor. They had some water, but no food. One group lost five people, most of them elderly, who were too weak from hunger to carry on. “It was tiring carrying our possessions and the young children,” said one 35-year-old woman. “We walked at night for safety, but still had to walk during the day.”
On the journey, some refugees suffered from malaria; others reported body pains, headaches, stomach pains, “hunger pains,” and infections. “We lost people along the way,” the woman said.
Some Sanctuary at Jamam Camp
Though the journey was difficult, the refugees also speak of the relief they felt when they reached safety, health care, shelter, and food in Jamam camp, one of four refugee camps in South Sudan’s Maban County. A group of women related their anxieties about the journey and their fear about what would happen when they reached South Sudan. Now, they said, they felt very safe, and were happy because their children were healthier.
The refugees expect that more people from their villages will join them in South Sudan as soon as they can find a way to escape get there. Perhaps one day life will return to normal, and they will be able to think about the future, but for now, their needs and hopes are very immediate: “Food and water, health care and medicine—and not to fear for our children anymore,” one woman said. Another summarized her hopes as follows: “To have a hospital for our people, to have schools for our children, to cultivate, and to rest—all the things that we should have.”