South Sudan: Where trees and rivers have become home for hundreds of thousands of displaced families

Published: 22 April 2014 10:14 CET

Katarina Höije, for Swedish Red Cross

They lack almost everything

Hundreds of thousands are displaced following violence in South Sudan, which has emptied entire villages. The displaced lack food, water and shelter.

Low mud huts and crooked sheds, made from iron sheeting, line the sandy road. Salesmen offer everything from tinned sardines, tomatoes and soap to mobile phone charging from noisy generators. A group of men in jalabiyas pass some women heading to a borehole to collect water. Further away children play football on a stony field. From a distance, Minkamen seems to be a lively village along the shores of the Nile’s west bank, 120 kilometres north of the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Then you start calculating the number of huts and compare that with the crowds of people. There simply are not enough huts to shelter everyone.

Tens of thousands of people fled from the town of Bor to surrounding areas when fighting broke out in December last year. The small fishing village was transformed into a sprawling settlement. Each and every tree along the river became home to a family. Philip Majok, his wife Ateny Nyuon, and their nine children stay under one of the trees. The riverside has been their home since January. Clothes, cooking pots and mosquito nets are hanging from the branches above their heads. Here, closer to the river, the tree branches give protection against the worst heat. “In the beginning of March, temperatures can reach 40 degrees in the shade, but the nights are still cool,” says Ateny Nyuon, who is worried for her children.

A skinny chicken is picking the ground next to a white plastic sack with rice. Ateny Nyuon picks up the sack and shakes it. It is almost empty.

“Since we arrived here we have only eaten two meals per day. Sometimes just one. The children eat first; they can’t understand why they can’t eat until they are full.”

Those who fled to Minkamen are completely dependent on aid from humanitarian agencies, says Maria Nilsson from the Swedish Red Cross Society. She is in the country to assist the South Sudan Red Cross, the youngest of the global family of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies.

“People were already living in difficult situations before the conflict, in one of the poorest countries in the world. The needs are huge among those who have been forced to flee their homes,” says Maria Nilsson. “Many have now also lost their belongings and means of earning a living. They lack even the most basic life necessities such as clean water, food and access to health care.”

In the settlement people live close together. Many sleep in simple tents made of plastic sheets. Others sleep directly on the ground, without any shelter.

“The rains are soon starting. They have to receive help quickly to protect themselves from the rains,” says David Mitu who oversees the provision of water and sanitation from the South Sudan Red Cross at a settlement for internally displaced persons in Juba. “With so many people living so closely together, hygiene becomes a problem since the latrines fill up quickly. The drainage in the settlement is poor, so there are a lot of mosquitoes. It also increases the risk of communicable diseases.

“Every day, approximately 30 volunteers are at the settlement to provide 9,000 people with water. Each gets 15 litres per day. In Minkamen, we distribute hygiene kits for women with children and pregnant women who are soon giving birth. We also distribute water purification tablets to reduce the risk of diseases.”

From early morning to late evening, the Majok family walked together with other displaced persons until they came to a village several kilometres south along the Nile. “For many days we hid in the forest. To fight the worst of the hunger, we chewed on roots and berries. We collected water from the river,” says Ateny Nyuon. “I saw one woman collapse beside me. She had a baby in her arms. I don’t know what happened to the baby.”

As the rainy seasons approaches, the challenges of providing assistance to the hundreds of thousands of people who are now living in difficult conditions, away from their familiar surroundings, increase dramatically. “People will be in need of assistance for a long time to come,” says Maria Nilsson. “In areas directly affected by the conflict, the Red Cross is focusing on helping the people in need, for example through making sure that non-food relief items such as jerry cans, plastic sheets, ropes, sleeping mats, blankets and soap are transported and prepositioned across the country before the rains start.”

Facts: The situation in South Sudan

Since December of last year, fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan to flee their homes. Tens of thousands are housed in temporary settlements across the country. More than 220,000 others have crossed borders into neighbouring countries. Despite a ceasefire agreement, the fighting continues.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched an emergency appeal of 4,702,572 Swiss francs to support the South Sudan Red Cross in assisting 105,080 people affected by the violence over 12 months. Planned interventions include providing the most vulnerable with non-food items and emergency shelter. Other activities will focus on health, water, sanitation and hygiene promotion.