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Responding to a humanitarian crisis and saving lives: UNHCR in South Sudan

News Stories, 25 September 2012

© UNHCR/G.Beals
A group of Sudanese arrive in South Sudan carrying their belongings on their heads.

YUSUF BATIL, South Sudan, September 25 (UNHCR) Muktar thought of war as something far away too distant to do harm. But, last spring, the violence came to Tampona village in Sudan's Blue Nile state. The first to die was Muktar's neighbour, Ibrahim, his life taken as he ran home during a bombing raid.

When the bombs fell, Muktar, 28, gathered his family, his possessions and his donkey, and went to the nearby town of Gozbagar. There he did what he knew best: farming. He planted sorghum, to feed his family and for barter.

But more tribes passed through Gozbagar all fleeing war. They brought herds of cattle, destroying his crops. Muktar and his family could no longer sustain themselves. He had four children. His wife was pregnant with their fifth. The bombings continued.

During one Antonov raid in May, Muktar's wife Taiba, 25, gave birth to their daughter Amani after three hours of labour as they hid in the tall grass outside Gozbagar. With a newborn, they decided they must leave for the border.

The way was fraught with danger. Men with guns blocked the main roads leading to South Sudan. Muktar learned how to skirt them from refugees who had returned to their villages to rescue other family members.

When the family departed under a starlit sky in early July, he carried critical possessions clothes and a grinding stone for flour on his back. Taiba took Amani in her arms. Muktar's oldest son Babakir, 9, walked. The donkey carried the other three children. But after the first week, the animal injured a hoof and Muktar had to carry two children and the grindstone.

His method for carrying the load was simple: "I had to carry one child, put him down and come back and carry another," he said. The family crossed the border on July 23 after a two-week journey.

The story of their flight is typical. More than 100,000 refugees have crossed the border between Sudan's Blue Nile state and South Sudan's Upper Nile state since November. In an environment in which UNHCR continues to be faced with limited choices and scarce resources, saving the lives of the most vulnerable was and continues to be the agency's chief priority.

Women, children and families fled along routes that due to conflict and the rains were dangerous and often inaccessible. Many of those who made the crossing were children and the elderly. A family of blind people crossed the border led by other village members. Women made the crossing with their newborns. They arrived in South Sudan exhausted.

As the rainy season set in and the land turned into a vast swamp, UNHCR prioritized getting people from border areas to the safety of camps. "Had the group not been relocated urgently, we would have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of lives," says Mireille Girard, UNHCR's South Sudan representative.

The influx began last November, two months after the conflict in Blue Nile began. The first waves of refugees fled to Ethiopia. But as war moved south, large groups of refugees poured into Upper Nile. By January, more than 60,000 had arrived in South Sudan.

UNHCR had prepared for the emergency. Doro Camp opened and was able to accommodate 30,000 refugees in January. And in late 2011, refugees began arriving in Jamam, some 70 kilometres away the camp population had grown to 35,000 by April. UNHCR raced to provide support and worked to establish a more permanent camp here in Yusuf Batil, well away from the Sudan border.

By mid-May, another massive wave of refugees mostly women, children and elderly began to cross into South Sudan from Blue Nile state. "The first to arrive was a group of 500. We sent trucks to meet them and took them to Yusuf Batil," said Myrat Muradov, a protection officer with UNHCR. "The second day there were 5,000. The third day there was 10,000. Within one week there were 30,000 people at the border."

With the rains due soon, UNHCR knew that these refugees could become stranded. The first group was sent to Yusuf Batil on May 19. There, they were given tents, blankets, buckets, pots and pans and were registered as refugees. In a few days the convoy capacity was increased to 2,000-3,000 per day, despite the onset of rainstorms that turned the roads into mud traps.

"We tried to send convoys, trucks, 4x4s. Each and every one of them got stuck," Muradov said. UNHCR field workers searched for vehicles that could handle the terrain. They assembled a small armada of tractors with trailers.

The tractor fleet ferried refugees from a way station called Hofra, which lacked shelter and sanitation facilities, to a transit centre some 40 kms away, where they boarded buses and trucks to Yusuf Batil.

"The mood at the transit centre was as if we were in a race," said Hezekiah Abuya, a UNHCR protection officer helping to coordinate the relocation exercise. "There were thousands of people inside the transit centre and along the road. Our capacity was 1,000 but 3,000 per day were coming."

Meanwhile, UNHCR activated its contingency stockpiles from Nairobi and Juba and mobilized aircraft, trucks and barges to move thousands of tents, pots and pans, mosquito nets, food and medicine to supplement stocks on the ground.

Between March and July, the prepositioned non-food items in the South Sudan capital, Juba, have been airlifted in total: 50,000 blankets, 20,000 jerry cans, 25,000 kitchen sets, 40,000 mosquito nets and 40,000 sleeping mats were distributed to refugees. This followed an airlift of 11,000 tents from Dubai in December for the first influx. A drilling rig was flown in by helicopter to drill for water. The remoteness of the area necessitated extraordinary measures.

By the end of May, the rains hit again at full tilt. UNHCR staff had planned a mission to Hofra, 15 kms from the border, only to find that it was flooded with thick black mud. The good news was that most refugees had been moved from the border areas to Hofra; the bad news was that yet another way station had to be established at the next area where trucks could access. That area was called Kilometre 18 named after its distance from Jamam camp.

By mid-June, UNHCR and its partners had relocated some 22,000 people to Yusuf Batil. Approximately 9,000 remained in Kilometre 18. By the first week of July, of the 30,000 that had originally crossed the border only 1,200 people were left to move from Kilometre 18 to Yusuf Batil.

The rain continued to fall.

As the last 1,200 waited, the tractors began to fail. Some were cemented in mud. Others collapsed due to overuse. Finally UNHCR and staff from its partner aid agency, ACTED, managed to coax two tractors to life, navigating through the soil and the carcasses of stranded vehicles. By the time they arrived they found that the refugees had scattered from Kilometre 18 looking for cover from the rain.

Searches were conducted and the remaining refugees were carried to safety. And when they were, UNHCR and its partners knew that this was just the beginning.

By Greg Beals in Yusuf Batil, South Sudan

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