Women refugees at Yida camp appeal for more security
"Refugees have no choice. You do." Was the theme for World Refugee Day, June 20th 2012. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, every minute, eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.
There are more than 42 million forcibly displaced people around the world.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the numbers represent far more than statistics; they are individuals and families whose lives have been up-ended, whose communities have been destroyed, and whose future remains uncertain.
He says despite budget constraints everywhere, we must not turn away from those in need.
The Secretary-General calls for everyone to work together to mobilize the political will and leadership to prevent and end the conflicts that trigger refugee flows.
In South Sudan, Yida Refugee camps in Unity State, is a home for more than 37,000 people from Sudan.
Radio Miraya Journalist James Ohisa who travelled to Yida, tells the stories of these refugees:
It takes about two hours and fifteen minutes to fly in a small Cessna Caravan aircraft from Juba to Yida Refugee camp in Unity State. The camp, located North of Bentiu, is home to about 37,000 refugees from the Nuba Mountains. Many of them fled their homes in June of last year, when the conflict between the SAF and the Rebels in South Kordofan State intensified. Every day new refugees arrive here in Yida as war in the Nuba Mountains continues. The Nuba people here are now depending on humanitarian agencies for assistance. Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNHCR, Care, Samaritan's Purse, and Non-Violent Peaceforce are all present here to assist the refugees as best they can.
As the fate of these very refugees is being discussed in Peace Talks in Addis, which had been frozen for over two months, I got the opportunity to follow a team of observers on an assessment mission to the camp. Upon landing, we were received by about 70 refugees children at the air strip adjacent to the camp. As they gathered around the visitors coming off the plane, giggling and pointing their finger at us, it's apparent that our arrival was a source of entertainment to them and they were happy to welcome newcomers. I asked one of the children, Saddam Harroun, about their life in the camp. He looked about 13 years old, definitely one of the oldest of the group. Barefoot and wearing a worn red T-shirt and trousers, he didn't shy away from the microphone and came close to tell me about his experience here.
Livelihood was so bad at the beginning and because of hunger people fled to a place called Nyiel, but now they have become patient since food was brought, people can now eat better than before. All services including health and education are all operational.
After my interaction with the children at the air strip, a UNHCR vehicle picked us up and took us to the main camp site. In the camp I noticed trenches everywhere. Some of these trenches were covered by dry grass sheds and others lay under trees. I asked the reason for the trenches and was told were dug to provide safety from possible aerial bombings by SAF war planes, after one fell into the camp last October. Since then, they haven't been hit, but bombs were reportedly falling just 15 kilometers north from here on the Sudan - South Sudan disputed border.
We proceeded to the UNHCR compound where I met a refugee, Sarah Ramadan, preparing food under a tree. She worked as a cook there. I asked her why she fled her home.
"I came here because of the war, the war was so bad and that is why I came here, I escaped during the attack on Kadugli. We were bombed by warplanes and Antinov; in addition black people are being slaughtered in Kadugli that was what has forced us to flee. We ran on top of the mountains as there was no way to escape, but we manage to get here." Sarah explained the reasons behind her escape from her home.
Just outside the compound I speak to another refugee, Asha Abd-El Rahman . She told me things were tough, because despite the full monthly food rations they receive through WFP, they need cash to get by for hygiene products and meat. As she cut grass and wood which she will later sell at the central Yida market.
"We have escaped all the way from Kadugli running with our children looking for a secure place for our safety; we left our husbands behind. All our properties were destroyed in the event of the war." Asha bitterly shared her experience.
As a great portion of the population of Yida refugee camp are women and children; they continuously struggle to live amidst fear not only of war and aerial bombardments, but of disease and overall insecurity even within the camp walls.
A recent story written by the IRC health advisor in Yida heart wrenchingly reports on the women and girls either beaten by their husbands who are fighting at the frontline and returning to the camp for the weekend, or abused and even raped by the occasional drunken soldier .
The international and humanitarian agencies are on the ground here assisting the tens of thousands of refugees as best they can, but because Yida is not a closed camp, providing full proof security appears to be impossible, although none of the NGO's here are really willing to say this out loud. Instead they nod their heads knowingly and sigh.
Medicine Sans Frontier is providing medical services for the refugees; but some of the refugees are sceptical of long term stability in the camp as they say they are expecting more arrivals to the camp. One refugee, Barbara Philip explains.
"There would be a lot of problems as more people arrive from South Kordofan; already the shelters are not enough and even getting food is a problem. If you go to the areas around the camp, you will find people living under trees. The small children and older people are suffering here at this point in time."
As refugees come in greater numbers, they can not only depend on humanitarian agencies and the UN for their livelihood. Some have even come to Yida with their animals, including donkeys, cows, sheep and goats.
More and more are involved in small businesses in the camp and because they freely move in and out of here, some chose to become traders.
I asked one trader called Abbas, from where they are bringing their goods.
"We bring our goods from Bentiu and because of the conditions of people here, we always lower our prices and this is in a move to help them." Abbas said.
Even though they are getting significant help and assistance most refugees I spoke to only have one dream... going home, back to their Nuba Mountains...
"I appeal to the UN to be committed to our course, so that we can go back and resettle in our villages; because like this we cannot live here." said one refugee who called on the UN to take action.
Yet their return home does not seem likely any time soon. The war in the Nuba Mountains is not subsiding and with the security situation in South Kordofan and at the border with South Sudan, which the UNHCR described as bad; the refugees in Yida camp were asked to move to Nyiel, a place further south from the border. Liz McLaren is the UNHCR community service team leader for Yida refugee camp.
"UNHCR considers the camp here is too close to the border, and for that reason we are hoping that the people would continue to move further south where it is a little bit more stable. We are trying to facilitate movement for those who are willing to go and ensure that they have a sufficient amount of information to a firm decision and the decision for their families." The UNHCR officer explained.
However Yida Refugees resisted the idea of moving further south and decided to remain in their present location. I asked refugee Hammad Mamour why they have refused to be relocated.
"They said this is just a transitional camp, we talked to them if there is possibilities we should move from here to another place they have chosen for us a place called Nyiel, we went and visited Nyiel, but our community said no to Nyeil because that place is a muddy place and the situation of Nyiel is completely contradicting to our lives." Mamour elaborated why Yida refugees refused the relocation.
Mammour also added that the Nubas need green space and trees and cannot be asked to live in dry deserted areas. He said they prefer to face the threat of bombs than to have to move. Another unspoken reason however that some women half whispered was that their husbands many of whom are part of the SPLM North, are still fighting at the front lines and come back to Yida to see their families, whenever they can.
For now, the fate of refugees in Yida camp near the Sudan border remains uncertain, only political decisions which are now on the table in Addis Ababa, may provide a light at the end of the tunnel for these people.
By Radio Miraya Journalist James Ohisa