Thursday, May 22, 2014

On the frontline of the South Sudan crisis

Right now, conflict-torn South Sudan is facing one of its biggest crises with thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and many more displaced within the country itself. As in so many conflicts, it is civilians – ordinary men, women and children – who suffer most.

I went to see for myself what the situation was like on the South Sudan border during a recent three-day visit with UNHCR colleagues to Kakuma refugee camp where Australia for UNHCR has funded projects for a number of years.

Crossing the border

I went first to Nadapal Border Transit centre where I spoke with newly arriving refugees who had travelled there by truck, bus and the last kilometre by Kenyan taxis (a rather incongruous sight in the bush). Many had been stranded on the other side of the flooded river and had spent a nerve wracking time fearing they might be forced back into South Sudan.

There were large extended families like Deng and his sister Scolian who had travelled for five days with her five children aged 17 years to two months. They looked exhausted but also incredibly relieved to have made it this far and to have left the fighting behind. They say their home in the city of Bor was attacked and burned, and they hid in the bush until making the journey here. Scolian’s eldest son Alang hovers protectively behind her as she tells me she is not sure where her husband is now.

Also relieved to have finally made it here was a man called Deng who emerged somewhat improbably from a dust covered taxi neat as a pin – his white shirt clean and creaseless. He helped his elderly mum from the car and into the shade of one of the few scraggly trees at the border post.

Given Deng’s professional appearance, I wasn’t surprised to learn that his job was as a Customer Relations Officer at Juba Airport. He and his mother had only a few bags between them.  He said that’s all they could carry in the dangerous journey from Juba.  But his mother Nyibol had made she sure had brought her special soup stirring sticks, which she guarded protectively.

Deng and the others would have to wait here for several hours for the convoy of trucks and buses that UNHCR organised, navigating the rugged and often flooded bush track between the border and Kakuma refugee camp 80 km away.

In the meantime, they would be processed by Kenyan border immigration officers with the help of UNHCR protection staff and then line up for a health check at the small tent clinic run by MSF Belgium. Children between 6 – 59 months all are screened for malnutrition.  Everyone receives a polio and measles vaccination and some high-energy biscuits.

Kakuma refugee camp

We decide to get on our way so we can see what is happening in Kakuma refugee camp. I have visited Kakuma several times now and am amazed at how it keeps expanding .It is actually made up of four camps now called Kakuma 1, 2, 3, and 4. UNHCR is in effect running several operations in one. The first is dealing with a longstanding refugee population many of whom have been here since the 90’s when the first wave of Sudanese refugees first arrived. Then there is a second wave of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. And then last year, thousands of South Sudanese starting arriving again when the first cracks in South Sudan’s unity began appearing – now called the “old” new arrivals because of the most recent waves of new arrivals coming after violence erupted in Juba on Christmas Day in 2013.

The head of UNHCR operations in Kakuma is Girma Gebre Kurritos, a pragmatic and very experienced UNHCR field officer with many years operating in complex emergencies like this. He describes to me the challenge that UNHCR is facing – a camp of 150,000 people. There are huge gaps between needs and resources. Shelter is a major priority but UNHCR needs more land to settle new arrivals. Water is provided by a number of deep bore holes but no pipes connect the new camps and water must be trucked in. Only 65% of refugees have adequate access to sanitation facilities.

Existing schools are overcrowded and only 50% of children aged 6 – 13 years are in school. UNHCR standards provided for 40 kilos of firewood per month but currently refugees get only 5 kilos, resulting in many refugees being compelled to sell rations to buy firewood from elsewhere. One of the major concerns is the number of unaccompanied children now in Kakuma – about 13,000, with 4,000 of those arriving since the beginning of the year.

Australia for UNHCR has funded a number of projects in Kakuma, including around water and sanitation. We have already helped install new latrines and washing facilities for 11,350 refugees. Given the thousands of new arrivals, we have now committed to raise funds from Australian donors to construct 500 more toilets that will benefit 2,500 refugees, and help extend the water supply to provide water to 151,114 new arrivals.

Reuniting with family

As night begins to fall we go to the Reception Centre where Deng and the other families I met at the border are soon to arrive. The convoy has been delayed by many hours as one of the buses got a flat tyre. This I know is not unusual given the conditions of the road.

The buses finally arrive and everyone already at the Reception Centre pushes forward to see if they have any family or friends arriving. I help mothers and their young children navigate their way down the steep bus stairs. A few remember me from this morning and hug me. One mum hands me her baby to hold as she helps her other children down.

It’s hard to describe my feelings at this moment. Relief that people have made it here, surprise at their grace and humour in spite of their predicament, and regard for my UNHCR colleagues who have been with these refugees all the way since early morning making sure they get here safely.

I have visited the Reception Centre many times over the last few years and it is more crowded every time I come. Expanded only recently to accommodate 700 people already, there are now many more people in the concrete shelters or spilling out in additional tents.

The heartbreaking struggle for refugee children

Everyone who arrives here is immediately given a sleeping mat, blankets, cooking pots and jerry cans. A hot meal is served every day and hundreds of children line up for the one good meal that day. And there are so many children – some with family members, but many without. Children like my 14-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter – far too young to be fending for themselves. For me, this is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this emergency.

One boy holds a neatly typed card with the following information:

Name: Suleiman
Nationality: Darfurian
Age: Not Sure
I have been kidnapped in Darfur as a two-year-old boy and taken to the Central African Republic where I was trained as a soldier. Life was miserable and I often ate only leaves.  I was rescued by UNMID (the United Nationals Mission in Darfur) and taken to Juba in South Sudan. I was born in Jebel Mara. If you can help with my identity, contact Darfurian Chief)

Until two weeks ago, Suleiman was living with 15,000 people at the UN Compound in Juba. With growing violence he made a run for it with other boys to Kakuma.

Suleiman is just one of many young boys with sad eyes who come up to me asking can I help them find his family.  One of them I am speaking to breaks away suddenly turns up to Nyibol Jabel – the elderly lady with the soup stirring sticks I had met at the border earlier.  She has now arrived at the Reception Centre with her son Deng who tells me this young boy has recognised his mother from his village.  The boy does not know where anyone from his family is but is clearly relieved to find somebody he recognises.  Nyibol holds his hand as a grandmother would, and his eyes fill with tears.

The Red Cross is working with UNHCR to help children trace their families.  In the meantime, UNHCR is working to place children with foster families or in group care. An emergency tented school has also been set up with a new school planned to open by mid-year. Families will more out of the Reception Centre into the camp in a few days’ time.  They are allotted a plot of land where they will build their own mud brick house, with UNHCR providing roofing, wooden beams and nails.

Later I visited the new arrival camp site and it is a scene of unrelenting activity.  Everybody – young children, old women, teenagers, fathers and mothers – are up to their knees in mud making bricks and then stacking and carrying them to their allotted areas for their houses. It is a strangely happy sight as everyone digs in together to help each other and other families.  To me it is not only a stark contrast to the division and chaos on the other side of the border but also a reminder of the resourcefulness and resilience of refugees.

To support UNHCR’s work with South Sudanese refugees, please visit:

View more photos or watch the video from Naomi’s mission.


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