Flood of refugees hits camp near Sudan border
YIDA, South Sudan – An unexploded bomb sticks out of the earth. Foxholes have been dug by aid workers fearing more airstrikes from Sudan. Streams of hungry refugees are pouring in.
The Yida camp near the militarized Sudan-South Sudan border now holds 31,000 Nuba refugees — almost double the number of less than two months ago. And the camp is bracing for thousands more, just before seasonal rains could choke off food supplies that are driven in on the roughest of dirt roads.
Back in their homeland, the refugees have been enduring bombardment from Sudanese warplanes and a crisis-level food shortage they blame on Sudan's president. Aid groups say Sudan — a mostly Arab nation — is intentionally trying to starve the black residents of the Nuba Mountains.
The latest arrivals say that in the Nuba Mountains — on Sudan's side of the world's newest border — people are eating leaves and roots. Food long ago ran out, and many have now eaten even all of their seeds meant for planting.
The new arrivals walk within 20 yards (meters) of an unexploded bomb dropped by a Sudanese aircraft in November that landed where the road from the north comes into the camp. The newest arrivals, who tried to complete the four- or five-day trek before the onset of six-month rains that will turn the ground to deep mud, are in bad shape. Stick-thin children are fed emergency rations. Refugees say people, mostly the young and old, back home are dying.
"There's no food where we live, but people are eating the leaves of trees. Every morning they go to the bush to collect leaves. There is also a root of a tree that if you soak it for five days and then boil it it is edible," said Amira Tia, who arrived at the camp last week after walking in green flip flops for four days with her four children.
Sudan does not allow aid from U.N. or international groups to be delivered to Nuba, and no official assessments have been done about the conditions there.
Geoffrey Pinnock, the World Food Program's emergency officer in Yida, fears that unknown.
"What we hear from refugees is that things are bad and getting worse," he said while walking through the camp. "Some people haven't had solid food in two months and then walk five days."
Muniara Kamal walked for six days to reach Nuba while carrying her 9-month-old girl, Safa, who wore a red sweatshirt with white hearts and swatted away flies while getting medical care. Tia said the group she was walking with was attacked by Antonov bombers twice. One man was cut in half by shrapnel, she said.
When South Sudan voted to break away from Sudan last year after decades of war, the people of the Nuba Mountains were caught in the middle. They are black, like the south, and not Arab like the north. Now a full-on war is under way in their homeland.
Even once they reach the relative safety of the camp, the threat of war remains. South Sudan's military is on alert in case recent border skirmishes with Sudan escalate into a full-scale conflict.
The Yida camp is far more militarized than aid workers would like. South Sudan troops move through the camp, as do northern rebel groups fighting Sudan. U.N. and other aid workers quietly say that rebel fighters use the camp for food and rest. International aid groups have dug deep foxholes in their compounds in case Sudan bombs again.
The rate of new arrivals has risen rapidly in recent days. Aid workers and Nuba leaders say 15,000 or even 30,000 more Nuba could reach Yida in coming weeks.
With the rains expected to start around June, WFP is rushing to deliver 5,000 metric tons of food. On a recent day, dozens of Nuba men erected large storage facilities and unloaded sacks of food from the U.S. government's aid arm, USAID.
The camp has a dirt airstrip, but the rains threaten to make the strip unusable. Goods could be parachuted in or dropped off by helicopter, but both methods are extremely expensive for a large refugee population.
Ibrahim Kallo, the head of the International Rescue Committee in Yida, said he's not counting on the runway being usable after the rains set in.
A recent emergency evacuation of a pregnant woman underscores the danger of being isolated by rain.
The IRC sent the woman to Bentiu — the nearest city, but one that is three to four hours over a jarringly bumpy dirt road when it's dry. The mother made it to the hospital just before some early rains arrived. On the way back to the camp the truck got stuck, and the mother and her 3-day-old newborn had to spend the night in the truck without food, Kallo said.
At Yida, straw huts covered by blue or white UNICEF tarps sit beneath the generous tree cover. Spiraling termite mounds 12 feet high or more tower above the scene.
Kids — especially the new arrivals — wear torn or dusty clothes. Most are barefoot. The women vastly outnumber the men, many of whom have stayed behind to fight the Sudanese Armed Forces.
The U.N. calls Yida a transit camp and wants the residents to move to two camps farther south, but most seem to prefer to be closer to their home and like the tree cover in Yida, protection from the merciless sun.
Aid workers say the proud Nuba, famously depicted in Leni Reifenstahl's photographs in the 1960s, don't like to take handouts. Lucas-Roberts, the 29-year-old head of Samaritan's Purse, the largest aid group here, noted that the refugees here build their own homes. People are even starting their own churches and businesses like small shops and a "movie theater" — a tent wtih a few chairs and a TV.
Hussein Algumbulla, the chief representative for the Nuba residents at the camp, said the Nuba have never been refugees, and hate asking for help: "We need only scythes and next year we can say to WFP you can come buy food from us."
Algumbulla says he expects the camp's population to swell to more than 60,000 people in coming months, a number that the U.N. refugee agency is also bracing for, according to Peter Trotter, the head official with UNHCR at Yida, noting that conditions in the Nuba Mountains aren't likely to improve and will get only worse.
"Humanitarian assistance in South Kordofan (Sudan) is not available," Trotter said. "They should be preparing land now but are not. There are reports of people eating their seed stock, so they have nothing to plant."
One of the saddest situations in the camp is overseen by Amjuma Ali Kuku, a 24-year-old teacher whose volunteered to watch after unaccompanied children. At first the task was manageable, but there are now some 2,000 children here without parents.
"For some of them, when the war broke out they ran with the teachers and that is why they are here," Kuku explained as dozens of girls played with a tattered ball nearby. "I encourage them ... some of them don't know if their mothers or fathers are alive."
Of the hundreds of children Kuku oversees, the parents of only 16 have arrived to pick up their kids. Kuku's compound of teenage and young girls has no security. Food has gone missing, leaving the girls hungry. The WFP is trying to improve security.
But Kamal feels safer in Yida than in Nuba, which she hopes can somehow be annexed by the south, something Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is not likely to allow anytime soon. She plans to stay away until there is peace. That may take a long time.