South Sudan / Uganda: Food and shelter scarce, threat of disease looms in overcrowded refugee camps

by Jane Labous | @janelabous | Plan International
Tuesday, 4 February 2014 12:34 GMT

Jerry cans lined up as women queue for water, Uganda

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South Sudan, February 2014:  AS dust swirls around the sprawling camp that is Minkamman, South Sudan, Abuot is digging a grave.

‘One of my daughters died this morning,’ he says. ‘We made the journey from Bor and crossed the Nile on a boat, but she was vomiting and had diarrhoea. By the time we got to the clinic, she was dead.’

Here in Awerial county, more than 84,000 people have taken refuge from the violence in neighbouring Jonglei state. Latest UN figures show a total of 863,100 people displaced by the conflict; an estimated 739,700 within South Sudan.

Many thousands more have fled to neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya, after fighting broke out in December 2013 between the government and those loyal to opposition troops led by Riek Machar.

At Minkamman camp, families cook and sleep under the trees. There are tents, but not enough for 140,000 people, and no toilets. There is a high threat of cholera, malaria and other diseases.

At night, queues of exhausted women carrying jerry cans snake through the camp. They are prepared to wait all night for a litre of water.

Achuoth, 35, has nine children and is caring for them alone in the camp while her husband stays in Bor to fight. Her three month-old baby is unwell.

'I don’t even have any milk to breastfeed my child,' she says. 'It’s been three days since we had a meal. We missed the first round of food distribution, so we’re waiting, hoping we’ll get some food in the next round. We don’t have a place to sleep, I use the small tent with my ill baby, but the rest of my children share a small mat out in the open.'

In Nimule, a small town on the border between Uganda and South Sudan where traditional circular mud houses stand alongside modern banks, offices and a market, thousands of people are now sheltering.

The new influx means that approximately half of the 200,000 people now living in Nimule are internally displaced, placing enormous pressure on the overcrowded town.

Dorcas, 16, fled Jonglei state when fighting broke out.

'We have nothing here,' she says, explaining that her studies have been interrupted.

'All I want to do is to take my children away from South Sudan to a re-settlement,' adds Mayola, 38, who has two children.

Mayola fled from Bor, where he watched as his home and the health centre where he worked were burnt to the ground.

'My children were frightened, they thought they would never see me again.'

He describes how he sent his family on ahead and stayed behind to bury his two uncles and aunt, killed during the fighting.

In Uganda, the situation is not much better. There are currently 60,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, according to the UN, but it expects that figure to rise to 100,000 in coming weeks.

Tabitha, a mother of three, is living under a tree in the Nyamunzi camp near Adjumani in northern Uganda.

She says: 'My children and I appreciate the help we are getting from humanitarian organisations but the food is barely enough even for the children. Most of us in the camps have no money to buy anything. We have to walk long distances to access the little water that is available.'

'I fled from Bor carrying my children. We had to cross the river to get to Awariel. Some children were separated from their parents in the process, and some died while crossing the river,' Tabitha adds.

The situation is fast becoming a humanitarian catastrophe, says Jimmy Tuhaise, Emergency Response Manager for Plan.

He says the 23,000 refugees at Nyumanzi camp are living in ‘appalling’ conditions.

'Thousands of babies and children are sleeping on bare ground under the trees. Open defecation is everywhere and the kids step in faeces as they play. There are massive queues at the only two water points and people wait for hours to get one jerry can of water. While a few agencies and the government of Uganda are doing their best to help, the situation in the camps is overwhelming.'

Plan International in Uganda is installing child-friendly spaces at the camps, as well as providing child protection and crucial water and sanitation facilities.

Negussie Amsalu, regional Water and Sanitation Advisor for Plan, says: 'When such disasters occur, children suffer most. Lack of proper sanitation will exacerbate the spread of diseases like diarrhoea and cholera.

'As a humanitarian agency, Plan Uganda’s efforts will focus on ensuring that there is maximum hygiene and sanitation and access to clean water in Baratuka settlement to avert the breakout of epidemics.'

In South Sudan, the children’s charity is distributing food assistance, tents and WASH in Awerial and Nimule, with sanitation a priority as the rainy season approaches. Approximately 5000 safe sites for children are also planned for Awerial.

'Children are often incredibly resilient and that’s why Plan is ready to move into more areas where children have been most affected,' says Gyan Adhikari, Plan South Sudan Country Director.

'We want to provide these children with an environment in which they can recover and be protected.' 

For the moment, people wait to see what the future brings. They pray only for peace - and to stay alive.