The swamps of South Sudan: a hungry refuge from war

by Jurg Eglin, head of ICRC in South Sudan
Friday, 26 February 2016 10:36 GMT

South Sudanese civilians use a boat to cross a river in the Southern part of Unity State Paynjiar County, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Dumo

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Whilst the South Sudanese people wait for peace to return, they are left to face a simpler, more profound daily reality – a life on the run

Displacement, despair then determination. When something bad happens to us, we can feel lost, unsure about the next step. Eventually we find a way to move on. For more than two years, though, the people of South Sudan have not been able to find that next stable step. They continue to live a life on the run.

For more than two years warfare between the government and opposition have ripped apart communities across the country. In other regions intercommunal clashes add to perennial insecurity. Many face a situation where home is simply not safe, forcing vulnerable women, children and men to resort to relocating somewhere that offers safety.

That safe place could be an overcrowded displacement camp, where deadly violence can still reach them, as clashes in Malakal this month showed. That safe place could be a swamp, a forest or an open field. Obviously there are no beds there. No mosquito nets. No food stocks. Life turns dangerous and miserable. Living is nothing but trying to survive.

One challenge for organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is finding and helping a population that wants only to hide. That makes assistance work more difficult but not impossible. Since 2013, the ICRC teams in South Sudan have delivered more than 1.6 million food rations, many of those to people hiding in swamps, in an attempt to fight back against the creeping effects of a persistent, long-term nutritional deficit.

Imagine when gun-wielding men come into a tiny village, shooting and killing. Families scatter in all directions. Mothers and fathers are separated. Children latch on to the nearest adult. This is a country where mobile phones are an extreme luxury. In short, families are torn apart, and it’s a monumental task to put them back together again.

The ICRC tries to help reconnect families by providing free phone calls. Time on a satellite phone is precious though, so each person is given just three minutes to share news and needs, and often the hope that the conflict will end.

Nyiakubo Wiyual, a 16-year-old from the eastern town of Akobo, began crying during her recent three-minute call. She was speaking to her brother, whom she hadn’t heard from since December 2013, when the violence broke out. “I am crying because I thought that my brother had been killed, but now I hear his voice. I’m so happy,” she said.

Once reconnected, a family must have means to survive. In South Sudan, that means cattle. There are no banks here. Family income is not poured into the family home. Instead, it is the number of cattle that project power and protect wealth. That is why the ICRC and South Sudan Red Cross have vaccinated more than 1 million head of livestock. When the fighting ends, if the cattle are healthy, the people will find a way to survive.

There have been promising signs of progress in the peace process interrupted by disappointing bouts of human suffering, such as when around 20 people were killed and dozens wounded in the Malakal violence. The ICRC continues to remind all sides that civilians are not a part of war, and they must be protected from the effects of fighting.

Whether this conflict ends quickly is not in hands of the millions who receive humanitarian assistance in South Sudan. Whilst the South Sudanese people wait for peace to return, they are left to face a simpler, more profound daily reality – a life on the run.

Jurg Eglin is the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in South Sudan