Medair’s Stella Chetham reports from a camp where nearly 10,000 South Sudanese returnees are stranded, waiting to return to the homes they left behind 20 years ago. Months ago, there was nothing here but a swamp. Now, 9,500 people live here, waiting, camping out on the swampy banks of the river Nile. They are among the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who have flocked back to their homeland filled with hopes of lasting peace after living more than 20 years in the north.
Their dream of home brought them this far, to the outskirts of a town called Renk at the northernmost tip of South Sudan. But now they see, like so many other returnees have seen, that they are arriving to a homeland utterly desolate from decades of conflict and underdevelopment.
At Mina Camp, returnees are stranded, waiting for a way to travel back to their home villages. The dirt roads south of Renk are too muddy to travel. People wait for barges that can transport them and their possessions down the Nile, but a fuel shortage means few boats arrive to port.
Desperate families have set up a sea of makeshift shelters in the swamps of Mina: leaky tents improvised from sticks, plastic sheeting, and anything else they can get their hands on. Huge piles of furniture are stacked throughout the camp, a lifetime of possessions being transported that betray the better quality of life they knew in the north.
“When I was in the north, I expected to find South Sudan growing, with many buildings, but it is not yet,” says Teresa Riak Moyik, staying in nearby Abayok camp. “In the north, we had our own houses, we were comfortable. But here we will build. Now that we have returned home, we see the conditions are bad, but we cannot leave.”
James Opal Aquig, a married father of seven, left his home village of Kaka, South Sudan, in 1987 and has lived in Khartoum ever since. “But I have wanted to return to my own place where I was born, and become a farmer or fisherman,” says James.
He and his family moved all their possessions to a football pitch in Khartoum. They were picked up by buses and brought here, to Mina camp. “The journey was bad, I was sick,” says James. “It took one-and-a-half days and was very crowded. We’ve been here three months. It’s too long. We are waiting for a barge.
“If we arrive safe in Kaka, I will build my house then pray for my God to give me and my children a better future. I was born in Kaka. I want to go and see it grow, with big buildings, water for all people, a better life.”
Hearing James’ hopes for his hometown left me with bittersweet feelings. Medair has been working in Kaka so I know it to be a very undeveloped area, even recently plagued by conflict that led our team to evacuate. But I was also encouraged because Medair has rebuilt the clinic there, trained the staff, and reconstructed the water system. So when they finally make it home, James and his family will benefit from Medair’s work.
Life in Mina Mina camp is full of pools of stagnant water that are alive with mosquitoes. Mosquitoes mean malaria, one of the deadliest illnesses in South Sudan, especially for young people who have not had exposure to it before now.
In the centre of the camp, a red and white flag marks Medair’s health tent, the only place where residents can go to receive free treatment. Malaria is the most common disease being treated. The clinic is stretched to capacity every day with as many as 200 patients.
Staff sit at their stations seeing a steady flow of patients, from consultation to testing to dispensing of medicines. A girl is sobbing quietly and tells me she has malaria. A little boy vomits up his medicine on the floor. One of the staff comes to clean it up while another patiently re-administers the dose. At the pharmacy table, a nurse explains to a woman the times of day she should take her tablets.
This all goes on in unbearable heat, limited space, and the noise of many voices competing at once. Sometimes I am able to stand back for a second and realise that I’m seeing some really amazing things.
At Abayok camp, people gather around one of four Medair-installed water points to collect clean water. The work to extend the pipes from the town’s water system has provided the only source of clean water for the thousands of residents.
As I see the staff come back to the base at the end of each long day, and hear their stories of the many situations they encountered, I feel proud that we can truly say Medair staff go the extra mile.
The people in Mina camp are exhausted, confused, hungry, and frustrated, just trying to build shelters and survive. The sense of weariness and despair is palpable. The toughest thing, beyond even the physical hardship, is not knowing when they will be able to move on.
Yet even with the few resources available, people find whatever ways they can to make ends meet, and Mina camp has become like a little town, with businesses springing up to support the residents. Music blares out in one corner, powered by a generator, and we pass little snack kiosks, tea houses, and even a place to charge mobile phones. Further on, freshly caught fish lie on mats on the ground, flies buzzing around them.
We wade through ankle-deep water to reach a section of the camp. Children run about playing with a metal hoop, giggling. Life goes on, even in this swamp that has reluctantly become a town.