fear and hope in South Sudan as refugees start to cross border again

February 2, 2013

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fear and hope in South Sudan as refugees start to cross border again © Paula Bronstein

“We were not happy to leave our homes, but every day we heard guns and fighting nearby. Some people died; we could not stay any longer.”

35-year-old mother of 10, the youngest of whom died soon after arriving at MSF’s hospital in Jamam refugee camp

More than 170,000 people who have fled violence in Sudan are living in refugee camps in South Sudan. 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, people are starting to cross the border again. In December 2012, around 370 refugees arrived at the border village of El Fuj, travelling in two groups and arriving a few days apart. The numbers are small compared to last year, when 35,000 people crossed the border in the space of just three weeks. Time will tell if they grow bigger.

“We were not happy to leave our homes, but when we arrived at El Fuj we received food and help, and now we are happy.”

36-year-old mother of nine

The newly arrived refugees told us their stories: of life in their home villages, made desperate by ongoing violence, of the agony of having to leave loved ones behind, and of their difficult and dangerous journeys to reach the border. They also spoke of hope, and of the relief they felt at reaching safety and finding healthcare, shelter and food.

But despite the relative safety of the camps, the dire living conditions should not be underestimated. There are still shortages of clean water – at times 40 percent of our medical consultations have been related to diarrhoea – 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 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 remains a concern.

Fleeing violence and insecurity

The newly arrived refugees are from the Ingessana ethnic group. A group of men told us they left because of violence and insecurity. In their home villages, they said, they could be “killed at any time of day or night, for no reason at all”.

“We have been bombed,” they said, “and our houses, crops and cattle burnt down by soldiers. Our women have been raped and sexually abused.” When we asked how many times rapes had occurred, they answered “almost every time”.

Fear of attack meant the villagers could not tend their crops, nor easily gather food or water. They have not had access to healthcare for a very long time.

“We left because of war. For the last one and 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 healthcare or medicine. Food we got from the ground, but not corn. Water we would collect in the early mornings. This has happened all seasons.”

36-year-old mother of nine children

“Villages were burnt down. It was not safe anymore; we lived afraid. We did not want to leave but we could not stay. We travelled with our families; we had to leave some people behind who were not able to travel.”

22-year-old woman who travelled with her husband and four children, the youngest of whom is one month old

The men told us that they went ahead, leaving under cover of night to find safe routes to travel, before sending for the women and children.

An 18-year-old woman, who travelled with her child to join her husband, became tearful 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 told us 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. MSF was held up at the border for two days, and so we were unable to deliver medical treatment in time, her daughter died within 12 hours of arriving at MSF’s hospital in Jamam.

Days walking with no food

The refugees had travelled for around eight days to reach El Fuj. Travelling by day and night, most of the journey had been on foot, occasionally by tractor. They had some water, but no food. One group told us how they had 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. We walked at night for safety, but still had to walk during the day.”

35-year-old woman

On the journey, some refugees were suffering from malaria; others reported body pains, headaches, stomach pains, “hunger pains” and infections.

“We lost people along the way. Amuna’s uncle died from hunger and thirst on the journey.”

22-year-old woman

Some sanctuary at Jamam camp

“Once we got to the border we met you. Now we have food and medicine and we are grateful for that. We were sick and tired, now we are stronger.”

22-year-old woman

The refugees expressed their relief at finding food, water, shelter, and healthcare 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 future

“There are many people who are still there and they should come here to Maban – everyone there should come here. More are coming. If there is no war, we can go back, but while there is war, no – we will stay here. But a time without war will not come.”

36-year-old woman

The refugees expect more people from their villages will join them in South Sudan, as soon as they can find a way to escape the violence.

We asked about their hopes and dreams for the future. “Food and water, healthcare and medicine - and not to fear for our children anymore,” said one woman. Another woman replied: “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.”

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