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Pressure on land, water as more refugees enter South Sudan

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Pressure on land, water as more refugees enter South Sudan

As thousands of Sudanese refugees converge on the border area of Elfoj, pressure is building on existing resources in eastern areas of South Sudan.
1 June 2012
Dungaz Tatalla and his family walked for nearly a month, eating leaves to survive along the way. They are now in Rum, a transit site in eastern South Sudan.

MABAN, South Sudan, June 1 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency and its partners in eastern South Sudan are racing to move thousands of Sudanese refugees from the border into suitable inland sites amid increasing water shortages.

Community leaders have told UNHCR there are an estimated 20,000 refugees who fled conflict and food shortages in Sudan's Blue Nile state and converged on the Elfoj border area of South Sudan's Upper Nile state. Another 40,000 could be on their way.

Dungaz Tatalla, 56, and his family walked for 27 days from their village in Gabanid in Blue Nile. His 73-year-old mother has swollen feet and has not had a proper meal in days.

"The bombing of our village is what pushed us from Gabanid," said Tatalla, leading the donkey that carried his exhausted mother to safety. "Our houses were burned down. People were being shot. There was nothing to stay for, especially because the whole village was leaving."

Fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North in Blue Nile has prevented villagers from farming and accessing food.

"We have been eating fruit from the lalob tree and cooking its leaves. Eating it on an empty stomach is not good but we have no choice," said Tatalla. The lalob has a bitter tasting fruit that the locals say can be used to treat malaria and typhoid. "We left because of the bombings, but right now we are hungry. Food is what we need now."

A number of new arrivals have been taken to hospitals in poor health. UNHCR is also racing to move the refugees away from the volatile border before seasonal rains render roads muddy and impassable.

"We are shifting gears to ensure the availability of more trucks and buses to move the new arrivals as quickly as possible from the border and to ensure that the basic standards of assistance such as water, food and health care are available at their point of entry," said Fred Cussigh, UNHCR's head of field office in Maban county, Upper Nile state.

Many of the new arrivals have been relocated some 30 kilometres from Elfoj to a transit site called Rum, where UNHCR and the World Food Programme have been distributing 10-day emergency food rations for 20,000 refugees. Water is trucked in as needed to supplement the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) water treatment system. MSF is also organizing a daily mobile clinic in Rum. Refugees who need medical care are transported to the clinic in Jamam refugee camp.

Since May 19, several thousand refugees have been moved to UNHCR's new camp, Yusuf Batil. About 1,000 are relocated at a time, three times a week, based on the capacity of services such as shelter and water in the camp. The first rains and muddy roads are slowing down the movements. Some groups are moving on their own from the border to join their communities in Doro and Jamam camps.

The current refugee influx is putting tremendous strains on limited resources in this remote area of South Sudan. With more than 37,000 refugees already living there, "Doro has literally run out of space and any attempts to increase the number of refugees would have negative consequences on the health, hygiene and cross-cultural relations of the settlement," said UNHCR's Cussigh.

Jamam camp is still grappling with a lack of water despite efforts to drill deeper into the ground. UNHCR is in the process of relocating 15,000 refugees from Jamam to Doro and Yusuf Batil to ease congestion and the pressure on limited water supplies in Jamam.

Among the refugees moved to Yusuf Batil was 80-year-old Som Komdan, who during his escape almost succumbed to diarrhoea, contracted from drinking contaminated water, and from swollen ankles from days of walking. "I am grateful to UNHCR and my son who forced me to continue our journey to safety this far," he said with a toothless grin, surrounded by his worldly belongings stuffed in three big sorghum bags.

Like all new arrivals at the new camp, the old man received food rations and relief supplies such as plastic buckets, jerry cans and sleeping mats. He ventured further, chuckling cheekily, "Now that they have provided me with a place to sleep peacefully, perhaps UNHCR can find me a set of teeth with which to enjoy my meals in my old age?"

More than 138,000 Sudanese refugees have sought safety in South Sudan from Blue Nile and South Kordofan states since June last year.

By Pumla Rulashe in Maban, South Sudan