Written by Eric Frans in South Sudan
I am sitting in the Tearfund compound in Juba, having just returned from a field trip to an IDP camp. IDP stands for Internally Displaced People they are refugees that haven’t crossed an international border. This camp was created around December of 2013 when fighting broke out in the north of the country between two tribes one is the tribe the President comes from, and the other is the tribe the Vice President comes from. The spark that started this, ignited fighting in disparate places almost instantaneously. The fighting has been fierce and it has enveloped large portions of the country showing both how tenuous the peace was and how appearances can be deceiving.
Since the birth of this country 3 years ago, there had been an appearance of peace and a façade of unity amongst the tribes of South Sudan “we are all South Sudanese”. But the reality of historical fractures between tribes was never far below the surface. It didn’t take much to see the peace break from those fractures.
Short video from Reuters shortly after violence broke out.
I spoke at length with the person in charge of the camp. The story was horrifying in every sense of the word. Those of us lucky enough to have been born and raised in North America cannot fully comprehend the reality that so much of the world endures. And characteristically, it is the women and girls who bear the brunt of the worst of it. This IDP camp, and the stories of the women in it, confirms this to be the case once again.
“The family lives together in a makeshift shelter built from tarpaulin, wood and some corrugated iron.”
For one woman, whose husband has been conscripted into the fighting, her nightmare began on Christmas Eve last year. That’s when, in her words, “there was no way to escape, the bullets were flying everywhere, we hid for 4 days.” On the fourth day, armed men stormed the home where she and her 8 children we hiding. Without reason or provocation, with all the family cowering together, they shot and killed her oldest son (17 years old), and then shot her youngest daughter (9 months old) in the leg. Once the soldiers left, she picked up her children and carried her seriously wounded infant daughter to the closest hospital a trip that took them 90 minutes on foot. Her daughter’s life was saved, but they had no food, no water and they couldn’t stay there. On January 17, 2014the family made it onto a UN evacuation flight with only the clothes they had on their backs. Eventually they found their way to this IDP camp outside Juba. When asked, she says, “it is good here that we are protected from the bad place”.
The family lives together in a makeshift shelter built from tarpaulin, wood and some corrugated iron. The older children attend the school created for the 450children who live in the camp. The family survives on food rations provided by the World Food Program though funding for that is drying up and often the rations are missing ingredients like oil or lentils.
“Blankets were the most sought after luxuries for the cold nights they endure.”
So while they are relatively safe here, their experiences have left scars. Now aged 18 months, her youngest daughter is still healing from her injuries; she cried when her mother showed us her leg. And while they seem happy at school and playing with the other children in the camp, the older children remain frightened. Now and again, when darkness falls and they all huddle together to try and sleep in their shelter, they whisper to their mom “our brother was shot, will we all die like that?”
Hers was far from the only person with a story like that, and quite frankly, hers was nowhere near the most disturbing. I left the camp in deep personal conflict. Part of me felt the lingering joy that was apparent in the smiles and embraces of the people who finally felt safe and the unbridled laughter of children who feel the freedom to unabashedly play. And yet, I knew why they were all here.
“Hers was far from the only person with a story like that, and quite frankly, hers was nowhere near the most disturbing.”
This wasn’t visiting a village where people and families had lived and called home for generations. There were no personal belongings in the shelters, no family mementos on the walls. This was a displaced people’s camp. Hastily constructed, one-room shelters of mud walls, donated tarps, salvaged corrugated metal and machete-cut branches were their homes. Blankets were the most sought after luxuries for the cold nights they endure. Two meals a day of pulses, rice and oil were their constant meat was not something to even be hoped for at dinner. Metal roofed, gender-specific communal latrines baking in the sweltering sun was their only choice for the necessities of life. No this was no village visit. This was a place of refuge for those who had absolutely nothing else and nowhere else to go. And they have no idea when they will be able to leave. So far three families have tried to return to their homes. One family turned around and came back when it was obvious to them that it was not safe. The other two families…well, no one has heard of or from them since.
There is so much more to tell. And so much I will probably never share with anyone because no one should ever have to experience it, even vicariously. Just take a moment right now, let go of all you think you know about hardship and difficulty, and simply say thank you. Be thankful for all you have love, family, friends, safety, food, clothing, choices, freedom, peace, options, closets, doors, health, the ability to log onto a computer or smart phone and connect to the internet and read this.