UN refugees in S. Sudan face perfect storm of woe as war drags on

UN compounds initially provided safe haven for civilians as conflict broke out. But now overcrowded and within conflict zones, they have become places where refugees confront predatory behavior, violence, and lack of sanitation.

Jason Patinkin
UN refugees in South Sudan carry goods through a waste canal in Bentiu camp, July 13.

When war broke out in South Sudan last December, the United Nations opened its bases to civilians fleeing the violence. That policy has saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives, and today more than 100,000 people shelter under peacekeepers' protection.

But the UN bases are not meant to house large populations for long periods of time – and seven months later, the camps are proving untenable.

This situation is most dire in Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity State, where more than 40,000 people shelter in the UN base in appalling conditions.

In Bentiu, three children under age 5 die every two days from preventable diseases, and more than 250 people have perished since May. Fights break out frequently in the cramped, politically charged quarters. Rains, lack of funds, and insecurity mean aid agencies can't get supplies in fast enough. The camp is so poorly supplied that civilians must venture outside to forage for firewood, vegetables, or water, risking rape, abduction, and murder by waiting soldiers and mercenaries tied to different ethnic groups. Even the fortified base itself has come under their fire.

But with the war showing no signs of stopping, and UN peacekeepers delayed, civilians have no other option for safe haven in South Sudan.

"My children are sick, we're living in the flooded area, there are mosquitoes, we are sleeping with no bed, the smell is awful," says a mother of six named Angelina, whose 1-year-old daughter recently recovered from malnutrition and malaria.  "But if there is no peace, I can't go out."

Angelina has been here since the war began following a political dispute between President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.

More than 10,000 people have since died, and 1.5 million have been displaced.  Bentiu has changed hands four times, with brutal ethnic massacres accompanying each battle.

Today, most people in this camp are Nuer because soldiers loyal to President Kiir currently control the town.  When the rebels had the upper hand, the Dinka took refuge here.

The Bentiu base is a city of flimsy tents built on a swamp never intended for human habitation.  Angelina lives like most here, dependent on World Food Programme handouts and cramped in a grass hut topped by a tarpaulin.  The ground around her shelter is ankle-deep mud.  The air is thick with the smell of excrement.

There is only enough clean water here for 10 liters per person per day, below international standards of 15, and 100 people share each latrine.  Many families use coffee cans as toilets, pouring the contents into foul-smelling canals between huts that flow into stagnant pools where children swim and people bathe and wash their clothes.

Children who contract diarrhea then face malnutrition which has its own negative spiral if not addressed. Even "in a situation where there's not a lot of food shortage you have a lot of deaths from malnutrition," says Ivan Gayton, head of the Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF) Bentiu mission.

Improving conditions is difficult because everything must be shipped in. Needs include not just food and medicine but wooden poles for building latrines and gravel for raising land.  Humanitarian agencies lack funding and dirt roads and runways are unusable for days after rain. Ongoing fighting delays flights; roads around Bentiu are mined, and gunmen attack truck drivers.  Two weeks ago a fuel truck bound for Bentiu was found with its cargo looted and the driver gone.

'Refuge' in the midst of a conflict zone

Another central problem is the sheer uncertainty of events.  Unlike an ideal refugee camp that is established away from fighting, Bentiu's base is in a conflict zone.

The rumble of shelling or pop of gunfire is heard near daily.  Stray bullets occasionally kill civilians, and soldiers lurk along roads and in the forests beyond the walls.

Even so, people are forced to search outside for basic goods – firewood especially – that humanitarian agencies do not provide.

"If they find you and you're a man, they kill you," charges one woman who regularly leaves the camp to get supplies and so cannot be named for her safety.  "If they find you and you're a woman, they rape you."

Adults and children alike have been shot, abducted, and executed in recent months, sometimes just yards outside the base's gates.

Peacekeepers try to increase their patrols, but are stretched thin as thousands of soldiers authorized by the UN Security Council six months ago haven't arrived.

To protect civilians outside bases, the UN relies on political relationships with whichever armed group is in town.  That strategy only lasts as long as each armed group is in control.

"If the town changes hands, civilians will be killed.  We know this because they always have," one senior UN official in Bentiu told the Monitor, adding that the base itself, which has a large breach in its wall where civilians freely pass in and out, is an "easy target" for militants.

In mid-April, a pro-government militia from Darfur fired BM-21 rockets into the civilians' camp, injuring two people.  In May, government troops stationed armored vehicles along the base's perimeter using the civilian camp behind them as a 'human shield' while firing at rebels.

In June, government troops, upset after peacekeepers rescued two abducted children, pointed vehicle mounted machine guns at the camp for thirty six tense hours before standing down.

The disease, violence, and uncertainty mean high stress.  Fights break out between hungry, angry civilians at water points and food distributions.  

Domestic violence and child abuse are rife.  There have been mob murders and alcohol-fueled brawls along ethnic or political lines.  During the Monitor's visit, two men, suspected of being Dinka, were viciously beaten while buying biscuits at the camp's market.

Even so, the base is the only safe option for most civilians, so 50 families continue to arrive each day, and they deeply appreciate the UN's protection. Mothers here even name their babies "Mongolia" to honor the country whose peacekeepers patrol the base.

But the longer the war drags on, the more frustrated people become with the camp, and with South Sudan's failures.  At dusk each day, a few dozen people slip through the breach to trek a day and a half north to Sudan.

"We are tired of hearing bullets," said the woman who ventures out in search of goods, saying she'll only stay in the camp for one more month. "If there's no peace at all it means all of us are going to the north.  People are finished with this country."

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