South Sudan

Balancing needs of displaced people and host communities

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Across South Sudan, civilians caught in the crossfire between warring groups desperately seek shelter and safety. Often it has been ACT Alliance members that have helped them survive.

In Ajuong Thok, an isolated community near the country’s border with Sudan, Miakeui Achol rests after walking with her husband and three children for almost a month after fleeing fighting in Malakal. They ate leaves along the way and only found water every two or three days. They chose Ajuong Thok because it hosts a refugee camp for those who have fled bombing in the Nuba Mountains across the border. “We assumed it must be a safe place, and we just wanted to get away from the shooting,” she said.

Beyond safety, the refugee camp also represents for many displaced people the hope of assistance from international organisations. Yet such assistance isn’t automatic. Local authorities gave the family a small plot of land and they built a framework of sticks over which they stretched a tarpaulin marked with the insignia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which Achol bought in the local market for the equivalent of US$6.

Achol and her family had survived only because of the solidarity of local residents but she was worried about the coming rains. She welcomed a visit by Birhanu Waka, the local coordinator for the Lutheran World Federation, an ACT Alliance member providing education and child protection services in the nearby refugee camp. Waka urged her to register with local emergency officials so her family could benefit from some of the several tons of relief supplies, including seeds and tools, which the LWF flew to Ajuong Thok at the beginning of April to distribute to displaced families.

Considering the needs of host communities and newcomers

When assisting displaced people, ACT members are careful to ensure that members of the local host community also benefit. Competition over scarce resources can lead to tensions, even violence.

In the village of Manangui, in Warrap state, families displaced by fighting around the city of Bentieu started showing up early in the year, many having walked for weeks through the bush and arriving in poor health. Local government officials gave them land for a camp. Achil Mayuen, a longtime resident, worried about what would happen to her small farm at the edge of the soon bustling camp. It’s a harsh environment, yet Mayuen said hospitality has prevailed over competition.

“We help them and they help us. I consider them guests in this area and it is my responsibility to make a guest feel welcome. I must share my food with them if they have none. Taking care of visitors is part of our culture here,” she said.

Mayuen says the arrival of the newcomers has turned into a blessing, in part because ACT member Norwegian Church Aid has drilled wells for both the displaced and their neighbours.

“Before the newcomers arrived, I had to walk an hour to get water. But now there’s a well just five minutes away. I save so much time that I can plant okra and other crops that I didn’t have time for before. Life is better with the wells, and they were only drilled because the displaced [people] came here,” she said. A school has been opened since the displaced people arrived. Previously, the closest school was a long distance away and Mayuen was unable to send any of her children. “Now I send two of my children to school.”

Conflict arising between new arrivals and existing communities

Displaced people are not welcomed everywhere. Around Nimule, a small city tucked against the country’s southern border with Uganda, Dinka families fleeing fighting around Bor have arrived in masse, along with their cattle. Many Nimule residents, most ethnic Ma’adi, already nurse resentment about waves of Dinka families from Bor who arrived during brutal periods of the country’s liberation struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. Many Ma’adi became refugees across the border in Uganda during those years, only to return home during a lull in the fighting to find the Dinka living on their land. So many people around Nimule weren’t thrilled when newly displaced families started arriving shortly after the current crisis began.

The government responded to the situation initially by prohibiting aid groups from assisting the displaced and encouraging the Dinka to move to the northeast, where land is supposedly available. Yet the displaced Dinka argued that other cattle-raising groups living there posed a threat to their cattle, and thus they preferred to remain among the Ma’adi, who generally don’t raise cattle.

Members of ACT have helped support the displaced people while simultaneously working to defuse the tension. NCA is drilling wells for a camp of displaced people in Melijo, several hours walk from Nimule, and is providing funding for a mobile clinic run by the local Catholic diocese that serves both displaced people and the host community. ICCO provided packets of household goods for distribution to displaced families. Dan Church Aid, another ACT member, provided funding for a local conflict resolution programme designed to facilitate dialogue and better relations between the Dinka newcomers and Ma’adi residents.

Population movements engendered by the current crisis can prove complicated. In the city of Bor, from which many of the displaced in Nimule fled, many of the empty houses they left behind have new tenants. Families displaced by fighting in Jonglei’s Duk County, for example, have fled to the relative safety of Bor. Humanitarian agencies cannot access areas closer to Duk because of continued fighting between government troops and rebels.

ACT support for Mou and other refugees

Mou Leu Chol came to Bor with her husband and three children in March when they were forced from their home in Duk County by fighting. They moved into the charred ruins of someone else’s house. “Nobody said we could live here but we found it empty and we just moved in,” said Chol, who is expecting another child in April.

ACT members provided Chol and other displaced families in Bor packages of household supplies including plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, cooking pots, a machete, mats and other essential items. A de-mining team from DCA arrived in March to sweep civilian areas for unexploded ordnance left over from both the recent conflict as well as the country’s civil wars. A DCA education team spends its days visiting the new residents, explaining the dangers of unexploded ordnance and the particular threat such items pose to children. A local radio station that recently returned to the air carries lively ACT commercials warning people to immediately report any munitions they find to the team.

Once the current fighting subsides, Chol wants to go home. “In Duk, we had a main house and four extra buildings. It was such a great place. We had a big garden and I grew vegetables, peanuts and corn. It was a good life. If there were no enemy there, we could go back there today,” she said. “If there were peace, we could go home.”