South Sudan: The million-strong refugee crisis no one is talking about

Daily Brew
A Sudanese girl from the war-torn Blue Nile state collects water from a muddy pond, in order to avoid a 12-hour wait at a water pump, in South Sudan's Doro refugee camp December 10, 2011. REUTERS/Hereward Holland

For the second time in two years Margaret Nyajur finds herself homeless in her own homeland. South Sudan's seasonal rains have left sticky red mud on the floor of the lightweight emergency tent that she and her four daughters live in. The 18’ x 10’ x 7’ shelter is inhabitable.

Nyajur and her family have the distinction of being the first registered members of a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Twic in Warrap state in South Sudan. The camp holds approximately 500 IDPs; mostly widowed mothers with young families, and some elderly. IDPs are defined as those who have fled their homes but not crossed an international border. They become refugees once in a foreign country.

There is an abundance of misery in the IDP camp. Barefoot children with dust-covered feet and legs walk aimlessly and play in the dirt. A few have scaly, oozing rashes. All are thin; many have rust-coloured hair, a sign of malnourishment. There are no schools, no books, no playgrounds, and no sounds of children laughing.

"We are always hungry. Our health is not good,” said Nyajur, who has malaria. "We have no future here but I never want to go back to Bentiu. I am scared."

Since early September, when a three-year-old Syrian boy’s body washed up on a Turkish beach, the world’s attention has been on the refugee crisis in Europe and on Syria. And for good reason. This is the Syrian conflict’s fifth year.

And yet, an equally severe humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, garners few headlines or public attention.

During civil war, violence against children has reached a new level of brutality. In Unity: “Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death …  Girls as young as 8 have been gang raped and murdered …  Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats,” UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement this summer.

In June, the Fund for Peace, a non-profit in Washington, D.C., named South Sudan the most fragile state in the world, based on a series of social, economic, and political indicators. This marks the second year in a row the country earned the highest rank. Syria was ninth.

Why the indifference? It’s possible North Americans and Europeans are overloaded by images of war and suffering; perhaps they feel donations to an African country won’t help. Or maybe they can’t connect emotionally with South Sudanese because they don’t see their children reflected in ebony faces and chocolate eyes.

Nyajur doesn’t make eye contact, but fiddles with her hands and taps her blue flip-flops on the ground as she recalls a terrible night in the winter of 2013. Around 4 a.m. she was woken by the sound of gunfire. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was attacking her hometown, Bentiu, in Unity state. She fled south with her girls aged 13, 12, 11, and 10. Her husband and two sons were killed.

As a result of clashes that began in December 2013 between the army of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar's rebel forces, the UNHCR estimates that more than 2.6 million people have been uprooted or forced to leave their homes. Almost 200,000 South Sudanese are sheltering in UN bases or other IDP camps.

Kiir’s army is primarily made up of members of the Dinka tribe while Machar’s soldiers are Neur. Despite the signing of a peace deal in late August, fighting continues in three of the country’s 10 states, residents continue to flee and safety and stability is out of reach.

“Even though the fighting is in one-third of the country, the situation for women and children remains very fragile,” says Paul Wel, a South Sudanese Canadian who divides his time between a home in Juba, South Sudan's capital, and his residence in Hamilton, Ontario. “They are living in limbo.”

Conditions in IDP camps are desperate; people live without jobs, education, or healthcare, he says. Wel studied the potential of agroforestry in peace building at the University of Guelph and is developing projects to help South Sudanese women with sustainable farming practices so they can feed their families and sell goods in their communities.

Even before this war, more South Sudanese women died in childbirth, per capita, than in any other country in the world, due to a lack of access to healthcare. They also have to contend with malaria – there’s been a recent spike in the number of cases; an inadequate number of treatment centres; and not enough mosquito nets.

Women in the camps work hard, however, to create a sense of community, maintain normalcy, and provide for their families. Nyajur turns towards a fenced-in garden and explains that she and others cultivate tomatoes and okra. "You have advanced technology,” she says. “While we use our hands and knees to work. With all the might we can, we want to make sure our children don't starve to death.”

Unfortunately their efforts are falling short and they must rely on the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), which distributes portions depending on family size; Nyajur receives 16 kg of millets every month. To supplement this, she looks for jobs in a nearby village. If she finds work in sorghum fields, she can earn up to 10 South Sudanese pounds, equivalent to US$1 a day. But inflation has risen 58% in the last year and food prices are skyrocketing; a 500 ml bottle of juice, for instance, costs 40 South Sudanese pounds.

The WFP has warned that South Sudan faces the worst levels of food insecurity in its four-year history because of the conflict and economic crisis. Some 4.6 million citizens, 40 per cent of the country – more than the population of Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa combined – is facing acute hunger, and the fall harvest is expected to be below average.

A 30-minute drive away along a potholed dirt road, there’s a second IDP camp; rows of white emergency tents encircled by sorghum fields. Mother of six Angelina Nyakii, 29, tells a now-familiar story of running from fierce fighting in Bentiu. Like Nyajur and Angeth she has no plans to return to her hometown because of the ongoing Dinka/Neur battle.

But the politics that caused the war have no place here and certainly no supporters amongst the widows. Nyakii, the camp’s community leader shares how the camp rallied around Nyasthang Kol, a Neur widow who fled the fighting in Unity with her six children. When Kol arrived three weeks ago there were no empty tents but she was welcomed by Adut Thuk, a Dinka widow with six children of her own. Fourteen of them now occupy Thuk’s tent. "It's getting just a little congested," one of Thuk's daughters says.

Nyakii gestures to a boy hunched over in the dirt. Makok, 7, has been unable to shake a cough for four months. At this moment, he can barely stand. His labored breathing and rattling chest could be bronchitis or pneumonia. He spits out bloody sputum.

An on-site primary health clinic that relied on emergency funding from the Canadian government since 2014 is no longer open. At the outset, World Vision Canada staff refurbished and maintained the facility and trained local South Sudanese workers to dispense medications. The NGO has been in Sudan to the north since 1989 and also works in South Sudan focusing on improving the health of women and children. The goal had been to smoothly transfer the clinic’s operations to the state.

A South Sudanese security guard outside the facility, however, says the county’s health department hasn’t paid clinic staff after Canadian funding stopped. The staff volunteered their services from March until the beginning of September but failed to show up two weeks ago and the building has since been closed.

A quick tour of the clinic reveals exam tables covered in dust and two rooms filled with stacks of unopened boxes of anti-malarial drugs, penicillin, gauze and wound dressing; none of which the IDP camp residents can benefit from. IDP kids press their faces against the window and silently peer in.'

World Vision and other NGOs have worked for years to strengthen the country’s health systems. They’ve successfully developed numerous self-sustaining community projects while gingerly navigating many obstacles in South Sudan. This is a country that spends 40 per cent of the budget on the military and its 250,000 troops while some four per cent is allocated to health care.

Nyakii points out that the nearest medical facility is 40-minutes away by car. On foot a South Sudanese might get there in a couple of hours. But Makok is frail and his mother has been blind since birth.

“Will you do something?” Nyakii asks.