NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As South Sudanese government and rebel forces fight for control of the strategic town of Bor, civilians lucky enough to have money pay about $40 to cross the River Nile and escape the fighting.
They cross at night to avoid being mistaken for rebels and shot at.
The boats take them to Awerial, a small settlement on the far bank that is hosting almost 90,000 displaced people. It is the largest displaced site identified in South Sudan since fighting broke out on Dec. 15.
Clashes have spread across the country, pushing the world’s newest state to the brink of civil war. In three weeks, 189,000 people have been displaced inside South Sudan and 23,000 have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees, according to the United Nations.
It predicts that up to 400,000 people could be displaced if the fighting continues.
The town of Bor, 190 km (120 miles) north of the capital Juba and capital of restive Jonglei State, was captured by rebel forces on Dec. 31. It has changed hands three times since the conflict began, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
Around 9,000 people have found sanctuary in Bor’s U.N. base. But water, food and sanitation remain at “critically low levels” as flights carrying aid have been unable to land, the U.N. said on Jan. 4.
In recent days, there has been renewed heavy fighting on the road outside Bor, which government forces are trying to recapture.
STUCK ON THE BOR SIDE
Those without money to cross the wide river to Awerial simply sit and wait.
“You have a lot of very vulnerable people that haven’t been able to come across – elderly people, children on their own, female-headed households,” Helen Mould, Save the Children’s South Sudan spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview.
“They are stuck on the other side of the river with no way of getting across.” Others are likely to be hiding in the surrounding swamps, she added.
Awerial is so overcrowded that new arrivals struggle to find shade from the baking sun. Each residential compound is hosting up to 200 people, and the shade under every tree is fully occupied.
“You have got 20, 30, 40 people sheltering under one tree,” said Mould. “People are having to walk about an hour from the river bank to find a tree under which they and their family are able to shelter.”
Those who have to sleep out in the open face the risk of malaria. Although it is the dry season, there is plenty of stagnant water in swamps where mosquitoes live.
SPEED AND NUMBERS
Distribution of food, kitchen sets and shelter materials has begun, but it is hard to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, and about 1,000 people are arriving each day, Mould said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently trucked supplies for 30,000 people up the dirt road from the capital Juba, a day’s journey.
“The numbers grew so quickly that by the time the convoy had gotten up there with the equipment for that many people, there were already a lot more,” Jacob Kurtzer, the ICRC’s spokesman in Juba, said in a telephone interview. “What makes the situation exceptional is the combination of the speed and the numbers.”
Although aid agencies are treating some water, many people are still drinking straight from the Nile – and there are no latrines.
“The hygiene and sanitation situation is critical with open defecation happening everywhere,” Hazel Nyathi, acting regional director for the child rights charity Plan, said in a statement.
Save the Children estimates that 60 percent of the displaced in Awerial are children. Most will have been traumatised by the violence they have witnessed.
Unaccompanied children are most at risk. Without adults, they often cannot get food, healthcare or shelter and they also risk being abused.
Many people have been surviving on wild fruits and leaves since they fled their homes, Mould said. In a situation where one-third of children are already undernourished, this makes them highly susceptible to disease.
“There are a lot of cases of diarrhoea and typhoid among young children. That’s only going to get worse as more people come and if the services aren’t scaled up,” she said.