On a trip to South Sudan I met men, women, and children in a refugee camp where footprints in the sand mark the signs of human suffering.
I am on a small plane leaving Yida, a camp in South Sudan holding 28,000 refugees, and counting, from the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan just to the north. Two days ago when I arrived an additional 170 new refugees arrived with me. While I made the three hour trip by land cruiser from Bentiu, many of those refugees made their way an equal or greater distance from the north on foot. I spoke with some refugees who just arrived yesterday, but only briefly as the journey had left them exhausted.
The landscape of the camp is almost otherworldly, flat dirt with a reddish tinge stretching for miles broken by scattered trees, some almost glowing red themselves, and the enormous termite mounds that at least one refugee has dug out to make into an oven for baking bread. Then there are the small holes serving as makeshift bomb shelters and the unforgettable tiny footprints that dot the dusty soil, a reminder of who bears the brunt of the suffering.
The Terror of Aerial Bombardment
The refugees here are fleeing fighting, aerial bombardment, and a lack of food and medicine as the Sudanese government continues to block humanitarian aid. Conditions in the camp seem passable, though there are problems getting enough food, water, and shelter. Conditions are much worse in the Nuba Mountains from which these refugees have fled, leaving behind relatives and friends who continue to hide in caves from the Antonov bombers that terrorize them from the skies day and night. People have built small foxholes next to their beds so that they can roll into them if the unmistakable throbbing hum of the Antonovs awakes them.
Similar small holes now dot the surface of Yida camp, tiny makeshift bomb shelters. The memory and the sound of the Antanov has followed the refugees into Yida camp. The camp itself was bombed in November, one bomb landing, but fortunately not exploding, next to a school that was in session. Antanov’s continue to pass over the camp about every other day taking a psychological toll on the population here that has witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of the bombs.
Just yesterday, 8 bombs fell on a bible school in the Nuba town of Heibon. As with the Yida bombing somehow no one was killed. A woman who made her way to Juba a couple of weeks ago told me that even far from the bombing child refugees dive for safety when they hear even a relief plane or just the terrifying word, “Antonov”. The woman told me how when she first arrives anywhere her first question is where she should hide if there is bombing.
Even more striking and ubiquitous than the mini bomb shelters throughout the camp are the impressions of tiny feet covering the dusty red soil. Indeed, those thousands and thousands of tiny footprints in the sand were the most unforgettable aspect of the camp for me. Dirt-covered children in ratty clothes seem to be running around everywhere in and out of the makeshift straw homes, around the bomb shelter holes that dot the entire camp, and among the bare trees and towering termite mounds erected in the dusty red soil.
The camp in Yida is mostly children. Some 74 percent of the population is under the age of 18 and there are over 3,000 unaccompanied minors in the camp without their parents. Boarding schools have been set up to house them and the older children take care of the younger ones as just over 100 volunteer teachers do their best to teach over 5,000 students with no text books, pads, or writing utensils. There are also adult classes taking place out under trees. Refugees and humanitarian workers say that the United Nations has been reluctant to provide education materials and sufficient food because the camp is not safe and they do not want to encourage refugees to stay there. The refugees say the UN is right that it is not safe but they see no better alternative between their abandoned homeland and the swampy lands riven by ethnic and militia fighting further south.
As I leave Yida I am left with countless memorable impressions and stories I have not even yet mentioned. There was the Darfuri girl, Seluah, 19, who left home last February with five other girls to escape the threat of sexual violence and persecution in Darfur. She came to the Nuba Mountains to gain an education so that she could learn to take care of the many orphans in her homeland of Darfur. In June the attacks and bombings began in the Nuba Mountains and last month she was finally forced to flee to Yida. When I ask if she plans to stay she answers that she has no other option.
Or there is the story of the education official, Hamad, who fled the initial violence with over 500 pupils and ten teachers. He was among the first to arrive in Yida with 264 students in tow. Many others were scattered in th chaos of the flight and three were killed by bullets along the way. After arriving, Hamad went back to the Nuba mountains and brought back another 74.
And then there is the 87 year old man brought to tears as he recounted to me the targeting of women and children that he witnessed when the fighting first broke out. He asks the question, “Are we, the Nuba people, not human beings?”
Throughout this experience it is clear that these people want the international community to know their plight and hope that something can be done to help them. There are many brave humanitarians on the ground doing their best to help but the situation is not sustainable. In the Nuba Mountains famine experts warn that a level just below full-fledged famine will soon be reached and some in the camp fear the numbers there will reach 40,000 or 50,000 in the coming weeks. That is just a small portion of the hundreds of thousands that have been displaced within Sudan and the estimated total of over half a million people that will be severely affected by the crisis.
Like the refugees who told them, I hope that these stories can do some small part to raise awareness of the situation here and that perhaps they can generate the political will for the United States and the world to do more to protect the innocent civilians affected. And I hope that I do not have to visit another refugee camp where thousands of little footprints mark the signs of human suffering, but rather peaceful villages where those tiny impressions mark the positive potential of a child’s journey into life.
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