Sudanese refugees' fate in hands of the West

Thu, Aug 23, 2012, 01:00

Having fled the conflict, more than 100,000 people now face starvation and disease, writes DAVID ADAMSin Maban County, South Sudan

UPON FIRST entering Batil refugee camp, near the town of Bunj in Maban County, South Sudan, one is struck by the seeming normality of the place.

There are no obviously starving people; no crowding around vehicles with hands outstretched; no one lying comatose along the main thoroughfare. Instead, as in any ordinary large village in any other part of Africa, there are bustling crowds and straggles of mostly colourfully dressed people going about their business.

First impressions, however, are deceptive. Batil, home to about 35,000 people, could accurately be described as many things, but “ordinary” would not feature among them.

Fiona Gannon, a nurse, told me she considered the situation there to have the potential to develop into the worst humanitarian crisis she had ever encountered. This is quite a statement from a professional aid worker of more than 23 years’ standing, whose career has taken her to places such as Rwanda, Darfur, Goma and southeast Asia (the last in response to the tsunami of 2004).

Gannon is Goal’s emergency co-ordinator and programme adviser for Batil. She explains the reasoning behind her fears. The camp sits on swampland, and is mosquito-ridden. It often rains at this time of year, whereupon Batil immediately floods and reverts to swamp, a swamp within which 35,000 people are living and moving around.

Except for what the aid organisations can supply, clean water is virtually non-existent and food extremely scarce. The sanitation facilities are dire and, relative to the size of the population, medical provision is all but non-existent.

Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, eye and skin infections and intestinal infections are all commonplace. Malaria is a major problem.

As an indicator of the scarcity of food at Batil, the global malnutrition rate among children there is running at 27.5 per cent. Serious malnutrition is at 13 per cent. To put that latter figure into perspective, anything above 2 per cent serious malnutrition usually triggers an emergency – the Batil rate is already almost seven times higher.

The remoteness of the location, poor infrastructure and an inability to source even the most mundane materials locally make the humanitarian response a hugely expensive, time-consuming and difficult operation. Virtually everything has to be airlifted in, or brought by barge to another location and trucked for five hours (at least) to Batil.

Phone coverage is patchy. During the rains, the sand roads become impassable quagmires, and nothing can be moved.

Batil is but one of four refugee camps in Upper Nile State, where Maban County is situated, which together hold an estimated 105,600 people.

The government of South Sudan is trying to help the refugees, but this is a newly independent country, ill-equipped to provide what is necessary for such a large influx of destitute people.

Sudan, of which it was formerly a part, deliberately deprived the southern part of the then united country of resources and investment, which precipitated a decades-long civil war, and eventually led to South Sudan’s independence last year. Despite a peace agreement between the two states, sporadic fighting has continued.

Walking around the camp, I come face to face with the reality of Batil: the many sick children and adults too weak to join the minority of residents one meets on the camp’s main thoroughfare.

Time and again, I hear stories of the bombardments and gun attacks that drove these people from their homes, and led to them walking for weeks or months before finding refuge at Batil.

“I am sad,” says Ashia, once a mother of nine children, of whom only six survive. “I am sad for the children I lost along the way, and I will always be sad for them. I can never be happy again.”

My two young companions and interpreters on these daily treks among the tents, Pamela Jendia and Samya Ladu, are both South Sudanese Goal community health workers. They were once refugees themselves. When they were children, at the height of the civil war, their families fled to Uganda, where Pamela and Samya were raised and gained university degrees. They, like many other former refugees, have returned to South Sudan to put their talents and education at the service of their people and country.

Asit Jelob, a mother of five, tells me that she walked with her husband and children for nearly two months to reach Batil. They have been here for three months.

“My children are sick with the fever [malaria], we have only the clean water that the aid people give us, and we need food. But I am happy in Batil,” says Asit, “because I can sleep at night. I no longer hear the bombs and the gunfire.”

Let no one tell you that the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is based on religion, although religious differences have been exploited at times by warmongers. The refugees at Batil are almost exclusively Muslim, but their allegiance is to Christian and animist South Sudan: and this allegiance is why they were subjected to attacks.

Fiona Gannon is too much of a diplomat to do more than hint at what, ultimately, will decide the fate of South Sudan’s refugees: the attitude of the major western powers to their plight.

Thus far, aside from the aid agencies, which can only do so much on their own, the western response has had a distinct air of tokenism about it. The media, following this example, have afforded little coverage to the refugee crisis, and consequently its audiences are barely aware that a crisis exists.

The logistical problems that are crippling the aid effort would be all but nullified if an existing airstrip near Bunj – used to ferry personnel in and out of Maban – was upgraded to accommodate cargo planes.

Is this too much to ask when thousands of lives are at stake?

At Juba airport, on my way out of South Sudan, I bought my grandson, Liam, a cap bearing the legend, “I Love Newly-Born South Sudan”. This particular newborn needs and deserves every bit of help we can give it.

David Adams is an Irish Times columnist and media officer with Goal, with whom he travelled to Africa