A piece of rope draped across a dirt road and a stop sign, hand painted in Arabic and English, mark the border between South Sudan and Sudan. Just 20 miles (32.2km) down a muddy dirt road lays the sprawling and fast-growing Yida refugee camp in South Sudan.
Now home to over 64,000 refugees according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), Yida Camp has more than doubled since April of this year, and hundreds of refugees continue to pour across the border daily. The refugees here are coming primarily from the Nuba Mountains, where clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North have driven thousands of residents of South Kordofan across the border and into Yida refugee camp.
Similar attacks are also ongoing in Blue Nile, driving over 113,000 people from their homes and into South Sudan’s Upper Nile state refugee camps. Over 170,000 people displaced into South Sudan have brought humanitarian efforts in the overcrowded refugee camps close to breaking point.
People are still arriving every day, many of them malnourished and weak. Most refugees walked for 3-12 days to reach Yida camp. Along the way they often had no food or water and tell stories of staying alive by eating the bark and leaves of trees and drinking from swamps and puddles of muddy water.
‘No food in our village’
Marsa Usman arrived in Yida last week with her four children, when she fled Talodi, her village in the Nuba Mountains.
“We walked for four days with no food or water to reach the camp. We ate leaves and grass along the way to survive,” said Marsa Usman. “We came because of the violence and hunger. There was no food left in our village.”
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Violence is not the only factor causing people to flee. As a result of the conflict, residents of these regions have been unable to cultivate their land, and hunger has become a major force driving people southward.
Marsa is typical of many of the refugees coming: she came with her children, walking with other neighbours and their children, but no men. The men have often stayed back either to fight or to protect their homes and possessions, leaving the women and children to make the long dangerous journey alone.
The onset of the rainy season, which will make the journey virtually impossible in the coming months as roads and paths become impassable, is also a factor. If they do not flee for the camps in South Sudan now, they may not be able to make it until January of next year when the rainy season subsides.
The rainy season, which is just setting in now, is also complicating an already complex and challenging emergency humanitarian response. The realities of delivering humanitarian assistance have become overwhelming for most organisations working here. Aid workers find themselves knee-deep in mud and cut off from supplies by the rains.
Problems for aid agencies
Camps in South Sudan hosting more than 160,000 people are often located in remote areas and lack even the most basic infrastructure, according to the UNHCR. Health care resources and water capacity are extremely limited, and are now wholly dependent on humanitarian agencies that are struggling to meet the growing needs as the population of refugees increases by the day.
From the air, cargo trucks are littered across the landscape, stuck wheel-deep in sticky black mud swamps that were once roads. United Nations flights are often temporarily grounded from landing at airstrips near the camps, which are all dirt, because of the risk of crashing on the wet and muddy surface.
South Sudan refugee influx strains camps
The surge is putting huge pressure on limited water and sanitation resources. One of the most pressing challenges is to scale up numbers of latrines and boreholes to match the numbers of new refugees.
According to medical aid workers in Yida, cases of severe diarrhoea are rapidly rising, and it has become the main cause of death among refugees, especially in children under five- years-old who are typically the most vulnerable.
Despite the fact that the rainy season is setting in, lack of clean drinking water is one of the biggest problems facing the refugees. In Yida camp, the lines at the water points stretch for blocks.
“I bring my buckets and jerrycans to the water point every morning at 6. I have to wait until 1 in the afternoon for a chance to fill them, and then I have to go again in the evening for more water. I spend most of my day just trying to get water,” said Mahsim Hasan Abdulla, a refugee and mother of six children.
Children who have been separated from their parents are streaming into Yida camp at an alarming rate. The UNHCR has registered over 2,200 unaccompanied minors at the camp. Coming across the border, children, walking alone or in small groups without adults, are seen daily as they make their way to the camp.
Usman Saman Ali, who is 14 years old, crossed the border alone on his way to Yida camp from Boram village in the Nuba Mountains after walking for five days. He was balancing an old battered suitcase on his head that was filled with the few items he could hastily pack when his village was attacked.
“I was separated from my family during the fighting. It was late at night and we all scattered to escape,” said Usman. “I lost my family in the chaos, but a neighbour told me my father went to Yida, so, god willing, I have come here to find him.”
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The UNHCR stresses that although the children are registered as unaccompanied minors, most of them have parents and have only been separated because of the violence. The UN and other international aid organisations are actively working to reunite children with their parents. Using the camp registration system they have already had several successes in finding parents who are living in the camps with their children who arrived as unaccompanied minors.
Oshellem Abdul, 15, another unaccompanied minor in Yida, is hopeful she will find her parents. Last June, when her home in Fama village in southern Kordofan was hit with an aerial bomb, her arm was seriously injured. After several days her family found her transported to the closest town with a medical centre, an 8-hour drive from her village. Her arm was amputated there and she went through months of rehabilitation before she was released in February.
“I started to walk home to my village, but there were military checkpoints and fighting, so I couldn’t pass,” she said. “Finally, I had to turn back and came to Yida because I had nowhere to go and nothing to eat. I have not been able to make contact with my family yet, but I think they are alive and I hope they come here eventually. It is very hard to live here and take care of myself because I lost my arm.”
Thousands more are reportedly on the move towards South Sudan. The UNHCR recently warned that humanitarian aid operations are nearing the breaking point. The new arrivals now double the planning figure anticipated for 2012. Although partners have stepped up emergency response, the high rate of arrival has put immense strain on the overall operation.
The author is a press officer for Mercy Corps.