Story

South Sudan: Untold Consequences of a Hidden War

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Hussein Bafa prays in front of his shelter in Jamam refugee camp in Upper Nile State in South Sudan. Originally from Kukur in the Blue Nile State in Sudan, he fled the bombing by the Sudanese Armed Forces and arrived at the refugee camp in early January, after six days of walking. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Men of the Engasana tribe meet daily in a hut to discuss the organization of everyday life in Jamam refugee camp in Upper Nile State in South Sudan. They fled the bombing by the Sudanese Armed Forces in the Blue Nile State in Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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The Doro refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan, houses 40,000 people, mainly of the Uduk ethnicity. The refugees arrive daily from the Blue Nile State in Sudan, after fleeing the bombing by the Sudanese Armed Forces. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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MSF (Doctors without Borders) clinic in Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. An increase in diarrhea is the direct consequence of the lack of water. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Men awaiting distribution in the Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. After walking several days to escape the bombing by Sudanese Armed Forces, they recently arrived in the camp, which houses more than 30,000 people. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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The refugee camp in Paryang hosts mainly students in the Unity State, South Sudan. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) tries to transfer the refugees from the volatile area at the border to this new site further south, where the refugees would be safe. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Moussa Koua Idriss lost track of his children while running away during the bombing in Kadugli in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. He is now settled in a hut in Yida refugee camp, a few kilometers from the border, in the Unity State in South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Children came to fetch water in a swamp in Jamam refugees camp in Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Access to water is a major problem for refugees in the camp who fled the bombing from the Sudanese Armed Forces in the Blue Nile State in North Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Men awaiting a distribution in Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. After several days of walking to escape the bombing by Sudanese Armed Forces, they recently arrived in the camp, which houses more than 30,000 people. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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After two days walking, refugees cross the border from the Blue Nile in Sudan, fleeing the fighting and bombing. They still have to walk another one or two days in the sun before reaching the Doro refugee camp in South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Asha, 25, arrived at the Jamam refugee camp in the Upper Nile State in South Sudan with only her daughter, after fleeing her village Kamar in the Blue Nile in Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Access to safe water is a major problem for refugees in Jamam refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Yida refugee camp, a few kilometers from the border, Unity State, South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Sinas, from the village of Soda, Blue Nile, Sudan, prepares the sorghum in her hut in Doro refugee camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Because of the lack of food, mothers and their children leave the camp with empty baskets to return to their fields in the north, despite the bombings. The sorghum season is now nearing its end. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

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Paryang Hospital, Unity State, South Sudan. Image by Cédric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2012.

The Khartoum regime continues to wage a war against the rebels of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile in Sudan. Humanitarian aid agencies and journalists have found that access to these two regions remains prohibited. “Humanitarian disaster,” “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “another Darfur” are the terms used by observers and analysts. Air strikes, ground fighting, mortar fire, killing and sexual violence are the facts. More than 100,000 people fled this hidden war to take refuge in the remote and impoverished area of the border between Sudan and the new state of South Sudan.

At first glance, the Doro camp in Upper Nile State does not resemble a refugee camp, but rather an African village. Some signs, however, are unmistakable. After several days without food, the dogs, which are numerous, become aggressive and start biting. In turn, they are stoned to death by children. Food and water shortages are commonplace in this camp hosting 40,000 people, where refugees, mainly of Uduk ethnicity, arrive daily from the Blue Nile region of eastern Sudan.

In the early morning, a column of mothers and their children leave the camp with empty baskets. They take the road of their exile in the reverse direction to return to their lands despite the bombing and collect what remains of sorghum (a cereal crop grown for food and for animal feed). Lately, they have been finding their fields burned by the enemy. On returning, often with empty hands, those who found something to eat share it with the others. But for how long? The end of the sorghum season approaches and soon it will not be worth the trouble of making the trip, even for those whose fields are intact.

Water, which is so important, is also missing. Families are allowed to fill two to three jerry cans a day—the equivalent of 5 to 6 liters of water per person—while the minimum recommended in a refugee camp is 15 to 20 liters per person. This creates tensions at the water hole where local people remind the refugees that this is not their home.

At first, people felt safe. But now that they hear the Antonovs flying over the camp and dropping their bombs at the border only a few kilometers away, they are afraid again. They say "the red people will kill the black people" meaning "the Arabs will kill the black Africans." The latest arrivals are refugees from Yabus, a village near the border which was attacked with heavy mortar fire. Some fear they will be pursued even inside the camp. Here, children dig so-called “foxholes” to protect themselves if attacked, the way they used to when they were home.

Yunan, 29, from the village of Chali in the Blue Nile, arrived after five days of walking. He had already spent 21 years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia during the civil war in his country. He wonders how to reply when his son says, "Later I will be a soldier to defend my family, so that we will no longer have to run away and hide." He says the hardest part of his new life as a refugee is "the deprivation of liberty. I am stuck here, like I am in a prison. In addition it is impossible to cut trees or grass to build shelters. We were told that we are not allowed to raise crops during the rainy season. How am I going to feed my children?"

In mid-February, a group of 50 people arrived to Shata, on the border. They were the first refugees of the Blue Nile, coming from Ethiopia into South Sudan. The conditions were so bad in the Ethiopian camp of Tokgo that they were escorted by Ethiopian troops until they arrived in Yabus. They still have to walk another day or two in the sun before they will reach Doro where they hope to create a better life.

Further west, in the Jamam camp, the cracked and fissured ground is the remains of the rainy season, when the earth became waterlogged. There is very little shade here, and it is hardly possible to stay in the tents or under plastic sheeting during the hottest hours of the day. Refugees of the Engasana tribe arrived via El Foj on foot or by trucks. Others have been displaced after having stopped there. It was too dangerous to stay after the transit center was bombed in January 2012. More than 30,000 refugees now live in this camp.

As in Doro, there is not enough water and food. Some families even eat tree leaves. The camp is divided into two by a road—here at the end of each day trucks with soldiers returning from the front pass at full speed in a cloud of dust. One side of the camp is still being cleared of unexploded ordnances dating from the Civil War, but also from the period after the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement).

In the Unity State, the main camp is the one of Yida, just a few kilometers from the border. It now hosts 16,000 refugees. In this area the border demarcation is not clear. This camp was bombed in November 2011 because Northern Authorities suspected SPLM-N rebels of coming here to rest before returning to the front in South Kordofan. Since then, the Sudanese Air Force has been targeting the road from Jau and trucks carrying civilians are sometimes attacked on the ground. Here, as in other visited camps, the stories about the exodus reflect a flight in haste without any opportunity for preparation.

John Albash Kuku, 27, used to be a primary school teacher in Tabanya in the Nuba Mountains. "When we heard the bombs falling near the school, two other teachers and myself immediately gathered the children and brought them to hide in caves in the mountains, as we are used to doing. The next day, while the bombing continued, we started our journey with 172 children. We walked very early in the morning because of the sun; the kids were exhausted. We only had nuts to eat.

"Until we reach Jau, we had to hide ourselves any time we heard the Antonovs. In Jau, we left those who could not walk anymore with a soldier. Once we reached Yida, after five days of walking, I left the children with the camp supervisor and I went back to fetch the boys we left in Jau. Until this day we have no information concerning the parents." They are not the only ones. In the center of the camp there are several huts gathered in compounds for the unaccompanied children.

Fearing further raids on the Yida camp, UNHCR tries to transfer the refugees from this volatile area to new sites established further south, which host mainly students. Here, in places such as Nyeel or Paryang, the refugees will be safe.

What is the message sent to the regime of Omar al-Bashir? In May 2011 the Sudanese Armed Forces took control of Abyei—causing its population to flee. In June, shortly before the independence of South Sudan, the planned popular consultation did not take place. A new war started against the people of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. In September it was the Blue Nile’s turn. One cannot help wondering about the repeated inaction of the international community.

Today, as the rainy season is approaching and the region will become a big swamp with a few islands of dry land here and there, the main challenge is to bring water and sufficient food into these remote camps, which will not be accessible anymore as the roads will be impassable. It is a matter of survival.