Life in South Sudan’s protection camps

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 16 Aug 2016 10:30 AM
Author: Arjun Claire
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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

They were meant to last for three days. But come December, they will have existed for three years. The United Nations Protection of Civilian sites have been shielding close to 200,000 people in South Sudan since December 2013, when the civil war first exploded in the world's youngest country.

As soon as violence spilled on to the streets, people ran to U.N. bases across South Sudan to seek safety from conflict. The United Nations opened its gates, hoping that people would return as soon as the situation stabilised.

But the civil war has dragged on, and shows no signs of abating, despite a peace agreement that was signed in August 2015. So people continue to languish in the six protection sites across South Sudan. These sites, or more appropriately, displacement camps, have begun to resemble semi-permanent settlements with enterprising residents setting up makeshift shops, tea stalls, hair salons and money transfer facilities.

Beneath the allure of a vibrant tent city, however, runs a strong undercurrent of fear, uncertainty and hopelessness that marks people's lives in the camps.

Arjun Claire is a humanitarian worker based in Switzerland. 

  • One of the six displacement camps in Malakal, which used to be an important trading town. The camp shelters over 32,000 people. Malakal, once the second-largest town in South Sudan, today bears a desolate look, with most of its erstwhile habitants seeking refuge in the nearby U.N. base. Gateway to the only functioning oil fields in the region, Malakal is strategically placed, and has been one of the main flashpoints in this civil war.

  • “This is the first time I witnessed war”, said a 70-year old woman, who now lives in the Malakal camp. “Before the fighting was between the army, but in this war, they are targeting civilians because of ethnicity”.

  • U.N peacekeeping forces are responsible for securing the displacement camp. People are able to move in and out, but only women venture outside the perimeters to collect firewood or buy goods in Malakal town. Men are too afraid to leave as they fear they may be attacked. “I am in prison here”, said a 42-year old man. “After I came to the PoC (Protection of Civilian site), I did not go outside”.

  • The camp is a vast agglomeration of flimsy tents, with open sewers like these punctuating the area. In the rainy season, or almost half the year, the area turns into a muddy, squelchy mess, making small chores like going out to collect water an ordeal.

  • Children scamper to collect drinking water. Water services and toilet facilities have been established by humanitarian organisations, but living conditions remain short of international standards, partly because these camps are not viewed as normal displacement sites, and thus not governed by the same rules. They are still seen as offering temporary refuge, even though many people have been in the camp for close to three years.

  • Improvised shops like these are important sources of food. Although humanitarian agencies provide food rations, residents complain they are meagre. “There is sorghum, but it is not enough,” said a 27-year old female. So some residents go to buy goods in Malakal town, and sell it in the camp

  • Thanks to the mighty river Nile that flows close to the camp, people have a decent supply of fish. But fishing in the river is fraught with risks, not least being harassed, or worse, shot by armed groups prowling in the area.

  • In order to supplement food and income, many women regularly go outside to collect firewood and green leaves, which they either use for their own consumption or sell in the camp. “I go out to collect firewood and buy vegetables”, said a 31-year old women. “It happened in the past, soldiers come catch one and leave the rest. One woman from the group was raped.”

  • Close to three years of confined displacement has inevitably left deep psychological scars, especially for young people who find their best years frittering away. Many battle against such despondency by using their energies in productive ways, such as enjoying a game of football.

  • Passers-by stop to listen to a song being sung by a group of children in the local church. Such events organised by residents themselves, or with the support of U.N and humanitarian agencies, are vital to give a sense of normalcy to camp life.

  • A man takes a moment to reflect as he repairs his bed. After over two years spent in displacement camps, and still no signs of peace, people like him now have only two options: stay put or leave the country altogether, both of which carry risks. U.N. bases have not been immune from attacks. The protection site in Malakal was overrun by armed elements in February, killing at least 25 people, and its base in Juba was caught-up in the cross-fire in the recent violence in the capital. Meanwhile, choosing to be a refugee comes with its own pile of vulnerabilities.

  • Having lived through over five decades of war, people in South Sudan have shown remarkable resilience to adversity. After independence in 2011, while many thought that the cycle of war was over, now it seems people are bracing themselves for yet another prolonged period of uncertainty.

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